Born in New Zealand, this Manchester-adopted scientist has since come to be known as the ‘father of nuclear physics’. For good reason too.
Prior to his arrival, his ‘investigations into disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances’ awarded him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908. Rutherford made Manchester his home when he was appointed Langworthy Professor of Physics in 1907. He stayed until 1919 and was a member of the Society during this period, acting as Vice President between 1909 and 1912.
The pioneering work of Rutherford and his colleagues has been widely established to signal the origins of the field of atomic physics.
It all began when he interpreted Geiger and Marsden’s ‘gold foil experiment’, leading him to discover the atomic nucleus. His model of the atom, made while at Manchester University, awarded him the Dalton Medal. In 1917, also in Manchester, he conducted experiments to produce the first ever artificially induced nuclear reaction. Rutherford hypothesized the resulting subatomic emission to be the nucleus of the hydrogen atom. In 1920, he corrected himself, referring to it as a proton.
In 1919 he became Director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1932, the first experiment to split the atomic nucleus in a controlled manner using a particle accelerator, was carried out by students under his direction. In the same year, also under his leadership, James Chadwick discovered the neutron, another subatomic particle.
Ernest Rutherford was knighted in 1914 and between 1925 and 1930 he was President of the Royal Society. He was also appointed to the Order of Merit in the 1925 New Year Honours. During his life he was presented with numerous other awards.
He died in 1937, in Cambridge, aged 66, and was interred in Westminster Abbey, alongside the greatest scientists of the UK.
Photograph of Ernest Rutherford and friend courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand