Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Dr. Ernest Rutherford: Nuclear Physicist

Arriving from New Zealand in 1898, Rutherford dove into research in the Montreal, Quebec lab, initiating major discoveries that enlarged the field of nuclear physics.

A physics expert trained under scholarship at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in England, Ernest Rutherford was stymied in furthering his research. It wasn’t a lack of skills nor was it money that was the problem – it was his age. At 26, he was too young under Cambridge rules to promote to full researcher status.

Around the same time, Rutherford was offered the tempting position of McDonald Professor of Experimental Physics at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. The young physicist considered the advantages – full professorship in a research position, the newest, best-equipped and finest facilities in the world, according to McGill University, and excellent remuneration of $2,500 per year. Rutherford accepted the post and sailed for Canada in the fall of 1898. (And Cavendish changed their rules then, too, permitting advancement of younger professors.)

Alpha and Beta Rays                                  Ernest Rutherford

Rutherford made great leaps in progress at McGill. Using Becquerel Rays, a method of ionization found in 1896, Rutherford’s immediate findings in Canada were the non-penetrating alpha and penetrating beta rays. Radon, the product emitted by radium and thorium, was another Rutherford breakthrough.(Radon is a radioactive gas without colour, taste or odor, and is noted as a leading cause of lung cancer by the Canadian Cancer Society.)

With the collaboration of Professor Frederick Soddy, who had arrived at McGill from England in 1900, Rutherford made a discovery in 1902 that would change the world of atomic physics: the disintegration theory of the atom.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The theory concluded “that atoms could be transformed and that each atom potentially crried a tremendous amount of energy,” noted McGill University. This science-altering discovery lead to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 for Rutherford. (Soddy earned the Nobel Prize in 1921.) Rutherford, said The World and I, told friends that “the fastest transformation he knew of was his own transformation from a physicist to a chemist.”

Another conclusion reached by Rutherford was the first inkling of radioactive dating – he suggested that if “the decay rate were known, and the relative proportions of lead and uranium in a sample were measured, it should be possible to date minerals.” While in Canada, Rutherford authored and co-authored 69 papers on the burgeoning and fascinating science of nuclear physics.

Rumford Medal

Rutherford Atomic Model, 1911The Royal Society of London awarded Professor Rutherford the prominent Rumford Medal in 1904 for his discovery of atomic disintegration. Becoming dissatisfied with being so far from the European science community, Rutherford readily accepted a post at the University of Manchester, England in 1907. Four years later, he made another major discovery – the nucleus of the atom.

Rutherford received a number of accolades for his work and held prestigious positions:, among them, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society, and a member of the Order of Merit.

Rutherford Family

The fourth child in a family of twelve, Ernest Rutherford was born in 1871 near Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand. He married the daughter of his New Zealand landlady, Mary Georgina Newton, in 1900 and brought his bride to live in Montreal. The Rutherfords had one daughter, Eileen: like her mother, she also married a physicist when she grew up.

Knighted for his immense efforts and later bestowed the title of Baron Rutherford of Nelson, Sir Ernest Rutherford died in Cambridge, England on October 19,1937. He was known, according to Collections Canada, as “energetic, robust and dynamic” with a “compelling personality possessed of a bright lively nature.“ His discovery of nuclear physics fundamentals changed the lives of Canadians and people around the world, and changed the course of scientific history.

For more on Sir Ernest Rutherford, visit Rutherford.

This article first appeared on in 2008.  Copyright Susanna McLeod


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