Biography of Ernest Rutherford

Father of Nuclear Physics

Ernest Rutherford
Ernest Rutherford.

Ernest Rutherford was the first man to split an atom, transmuting one element into another. He performed experiments on radioactivity and is widely regarded as the Father of Nuclear Physics or Father of the Nuclear Age. Here is a brief biography of this important scientist:


August 30, 1871, Spring Grove, New Zealand


October 19, 1937, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

Ernest Rutherford Claims To Fame

  • He discovered alpha and beta particles.
  • He coined the terms alpha, beta, and gamma rays.
  • Identified alpha particles as helium nuclei.
  • He demonstrated radioactivity was the spontaneous disintegration of atoms.
  • In 1903, Rutherford and Frederick Soddy formulated the laws of radioactive decay and described the disintegration theory of atoms.
  • Rutherford is credited with discovering the radioactive gaseous element radon, while at McGill University in Montreal.
  • Rutherford and Bertram Borden Boltwood (Yale University) proposed a "decay series" to categorize elements.
  • In 1919, he became the first person to artificially induce a nuclear reaction in a stable element.
  • In 1920, he hypothesized the existence of the neutron.
  • Lord Rutherford pioneered the orbital theory of the atom with his famous gold foil experiment, through which he discovered Rutherford scattering off the nucleus. This experiment was fundamental to the development of modern chemistry and physics, as it helped describe the nature of the atomic nucleus. Rutherford's gold foil experiment, also known as the Geiger–Marsden experiments, was not a single experiment, but a set of experiments conducted by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under Rutherford's supervision, between 1908 and 1913. By measuring how a beam of alpha particles was deflected when striking a thin sheet of gold foil, the scientists determined (a) the nucleus had a positive charge and (b) most of an atom's mass was in the nucleus. This is the Rutherford model of the atom.
  • He is sometimes called the Father of Nuclear Physics.

Notable Honors and Awards

  • Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1908) "for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances" - Affiliated with Victoria University, Manchester, United Kingdom
  • Knighted (1914)
  • Ennobled (1931)
  • President of the Institute of Physics (1931)
  •  After the war, Rutherford succeeded his mentor J. J. Thomson in the Cavendish Professorship at Cambridge 
  • Element 104, rutherfordium, is named in his honor
  • Received several honorary fellowships and degrees
  • Buried in Westminster Abbey

Interesting Rutherford Facts

  • Rutherford was the 4th of 12 children. He was the son of farmer James Rutherford and his wife, Martha. His parents were originally from Hornchurch, Essex, England, but they emigrated to New Zealand to raise flax and start a family.
  • When Rutherford's birth was registered, his name was mistakenly spelled "Earnest."
  • After completing his degree at the university in New Zealand, his job was teaching rebellious children.
  • He left teaching because he was awarded a scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England.
  • He became J. J. Thomson's first graduate student at the Cavendish Laboratory.
  • Rutherford's initial experiments dealt with the transmission of radio waves.
  • Rutherford and Thomson conducted electricity through gases and analyzed the results.
  • He entered the new field of radioactivity research, just discovered by Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie.
  • Rutherford worked with many interesting scientists of the time, including Frederick Soddy, Hans Geiger, Neils Bohr, H. G. J. Moseley, James Chadwick, and of course J. J. Thomson. Under Rutherford's supervision, James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932.
  • His work during World War I focused on submarine detection and antisubmarine research.
  • Rutherford was called "Crocodile" by his colleagues. The name referenced the scientist's relentless forward thinking.
  • Ernest Rutherford said he hoped scientists would not learn how to split the atom until “man was living at peace with his neighbors.” As it turned out, fission was discovered only two years after Rutherford's death and was applied to make nuclear weapons.
  • Rutherford's discoveries were the basis for the design and construction of the largest, most energetic particle accelerator in the world -- the Large Hadron Collider or LHC.
  • Rutherford was the first Canandian and Oceanian Nobel laureate.


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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Biography of Ernest Rutherford." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 25). Biography of Ernest Rutherford. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Biography of Ernest Rutherford." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).