Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


RUTHERFORD, Sir Ernest (Baron Rutherford of Nelson, O.M., F.R.S.)



A new biography of Rutherford, Ernest appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Ernest Rutherford was born on 30 August 1871 at Spring Grove (now Brightwater), Nelson Province, New Zealand. On his birth certificate his name, entered by his father, appears as Earnest, but on his marriage certificate the “a” is dropped. He was the son of James Rutherford who, with his father, George, emigrated from Perth, Scotland. His mother was Martha, née Thompson, of Horn-church, Essex. Rutherford was educated at Foxhill (1876–81) and Havelock (1882–86) primary schools, Nelson College (1887–89), Canterbury (University) College, Christchurch (1890–95), and the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, England (1895–98). At the early age of 27 Rutherford was appointed Macdonald Professor of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada (1898–1907). From there he advanced to the Langworthy Chair of Physics at Manchester University (1907–19); and while still in his prime was invited to fill the honoured post of Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics in the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cavendish Laboratory (1919–37), in succession to the famous Sir J. J. Thomson.

After he left New Zealand in 1896 Rutherford corresponded regularly both with his fiancée and with his mother; and much of this and of his later voluminous international correspondence has been preserved, copies having been reproduced and deposited, inter alia, in the library at Canterbury University. On four different occasions he paid short visits to his native land; in 1900 (for his marriage); in 1905 (visiting his parents, and accompanying his wife and daughter back to Canada); in 1914 (after attending the British Association meeting in Australia), when he delivered public lectures in Wellington and Christchurch; and finally in 1925 (to visit his parents), when he gave public addresses in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, and Christchurch.

Throughout later life Rutherford was interested in promising New Zealand science students, encouraging them to come to Britain and, when possible, arranging for them to work with him. The following New Zealanders (by birth or adoption) did research work under his direction, either at Manchester or at Cambridge: Professor D. C. H. Florance (1909–19), Dr E. Marsden (1909–14), Dr L. Bastings (1923–25), Dr D. H. Black (1923–25), Professor J. W. Hinton (1924–26), Dr G. T. P. Tarrant (1928–33), and Professor R. R. Nimmo (1926–29, and 1936). On 28 June 1900, at Papanui, Christchurch, Rutherford married Mary Georgina (1876–1945), only daughter of Arthur Charles and Mary de Renzy Newton. There was but one child of the marriage, Eileen Mary (1901–30), later wife of (Sir) Ralph Howard Fowler, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University; but four grandchildren survive: Dr Peter Howard (physics), Mrs Elizabeth Rutherford Taylor (genetics), Eliot Patrick (engineering), and Dr Ruth Eileen Edwards (medicine). Lord Rutherford died at Cambridge, England, on 19 October 1937. He was interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, and his ashes now lie alongside those of Sir J. J. Thomson.

When Rutherford commenced his research career at Cambridge in 1895, the physical sciences were just emerging from a period of quiescence and consolidation, with little prospect of fundamental progress. But the discovery of X-rays by Röntgen in 1895, of radioactivity by Becquerel in 1896, and of the electron by J. J. Thomson in 1897 completely transformed the scene and opened up a new era of scientific progress. “Seldom can anyone have started his career at a more auspicious moment; seldom can anyone have been better endowed to grasp, or more gloriously successful in exploiting, the opportunities that crowded fast upon him.” (R. H. Fowler.) It is not appropriate here to enter into details of the vast amount of experimental work which Rutherford undertook during the 42 years of his very active life. But brief reference may be made to his four outstanding discoveries in the field of atomic physics, any one of which was of sufficient importance to gain him international fame.

1. In 1903 Rutherford and Soddy, at the conclusion of a brilliant series of accurate quantitative experiments, advanced the revolutionary theory of spontaneous disintegration to account for the newly discovered phenomena of radioactivity. This theory explained the mystery as a natural and spontaneous transmutation of the parent elements (radium, thorium, etc.) into a series of new radioactive elements, differing in their chemical and physical properties from the parent elements.

2. In 1913 Rutherford investigated certain extraordinary effects observed in experiments conducted by himself and Marsden on the bombardment of metal foils with the alpha particles emitted by radium, and came to the conclusion that the atom (that minute unit believed to enter into the composition of all materials, and previously thought to be indivisible) was in fact very complex. He thereupon propounded the nuclear theory of the atom, in which he envisaged this tiny unit as a collection of still more minute particles, behaving somewhat like planets (the electrons) revolving around a central sun (the nucleus). Abundant evidence has accumulated in subsequent years to establish the essential truth of this epoch-making conclusion.

3. In 1919 Rutherford succeeded in detecting the transmutation of one elementary material (nitrogen) into another (hydrogen), a transmutation induced artificially when the former was bombarded by the natural alpha particles of radium.

4. In 1932 Rutherford, working with Cockcroft and Walton, was able to take the idea of transmutation an important step further. They were able to show that artificial transmutations could be accomplished also by using as projectiles for the bombardment particles of hydrogen which had been artificially accelerated to enormous speeds under the influence of a new type of electric machine which they had developed and which is described as a proton accelerator.

This last stage in the long chain of progress, which commenced at Montreal and was stepped up at Manchester, paved the way for the spectacular developments of the next 20 years, concluding with the release on an industrial scale of the enormous energy latent in radioactive materials, and harnessed recently in the atomic-energy power stations.

Many famous contemporaries of Rutherford have attempted appraisals of his work, some of which are quoted here.

“Rutherford was the father of nuclear physics. The inspired interpretation of his observations and his genius for experiment led to practically all we know about the structure of the atom. … He always worked on problems at the limits of human knowledge … the greatest physical scientist of his age.” (Sir Robert Robinson, P.R.S.)

“A man of the greatest intellectual power, who has altered the whole viewpoint of science, who accomplished an amazing amount of work of the first order, a physicist who obtained the highest prizes in life, who ranks among the greatest scientific men of all ages.” (A. S. Eve.)

“Even the casual reader of Rutherford's papers must be deeply impressed by his power in experiment.… He was, in my opinion, the greatest experimental physicist since Faraday.” (Sir James Chadwick.)

“The great majority (of his papers) were about researches … which had led to results of first-rate importance and which could not have been obtained by anyone who was not an experimentalist of the very first order.” (Sir J. J. Thomson.)

“The splendour of Rutherford's contributions to science … have played a leading part in the marvellous advances of modern physics.” (Sir William Bragg.)

“With the passing away of Lord Rutherford, the life of one of the greatest men who ever worked in science has come to an end. … He left science in quite a different state from that in which he found it.… He will be missed more, perhaps, than any scientific worker has ever been missed before.” (Professor Neils Bohr.)

Outstanding as was Rutherford's work, all his eulogisers speak even more enthusiastically of his forceful and endearing personal qualities, as the following quotations show.

“Those who were honoured by his friendship knew that his greatness as a scientist was matched by his greatness as a man. We… always shall remember with affection his big, energetic, exuberant personality; the simplicity, sincerity and transparent honesty of his character; and, perhaps most of all, his genius for friendship and good companionship. … Rutherford was ever the happy warrior – happy in his work, happy in its outcome, and happy in his human contacts.” (Sir James Jeans.)

“The greatest need of our age is the production of inspired leaders, of which he was the outstanding example of our generation.… I do want to remind you how much his career has influenced the respect and goodwill of the rest of the world for the country which produced him; and to emphasize the pride which properly comes to us that Rutherford was born and educated in New Zealand.” (Sir Ernest Marsden.)

“One of the secrets of Rutherford's success … was that he … possessed exceptional tenacity of purpose … pushing forward in his investigations with judgment, ingenuity and courage.” (I. B. N. Evans.)

“He stands at the height of his creative power, highly respected by his colleagues, admired and loved by the great host of his pupils … and on this day (his sixtieth birthday) will be paid to him in the highest measure the tribute of the recognition of the whole scientific world.” (Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner.)

“His refreshing personality, his dauntless spirit, the merry twinkle of his eye, the exuberance of his ever-youthful, ever-joyful enthusiasm: how can they be recaptured: … One can only say he was … a peer among men.” (Lord Baldwin.)

In 1952 the Royal Society launched a Commonwealth-wide appeal for funds to establish a suitable memorial to the life and work of Rutherford. Public support throughout New Zealand resulted in the collection of a sum which, when augmented by about £800 from the Government, reached £10,000. So generously was the appeal supported throughout the Commonwealth that the Royal Society was enabled to establish the memorial in two forms: (a) Rutherford Memorial Scholarships, to be awarded to postgraduate students within the British Commonwealth, for research in the natural sciences, with preference for experimental physics; and (b) a Rutherford Memorial Lecture, to be delivered at intervals at selected university centres in the Commonwealth overseas, at least one in three to be given in New Zealand.

So far no award of the Rutherford Memorial Scholarship has been made by the Royal Society to a New Zealand candidate. Rutherford Memorial Lecturers in New Zealand have been: 1952, Sir John Cockcroft, F.R.S. (Proc. Roy. Soc. A. 217, 1, 1953); 1956, Sir Charles Darwin, F.R.S., “The Discovery of Atomic Number” (Proc. Roy. Soc. A. 236, 285, 1956; N.Z. Science Review, Aug 1956); 1960, Sir Lawrence Bragg, F.R.S., “The Development of X-ray Analysis” (Proc. Roy. Soc. A. 262, 145, 1961).

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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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