Rutherford, Ernest, Baron Rutherford of NelsonRutherford, Ernest, Baron Rutherford of Nelson, physicist (b at Nelson, NZ 30 Aug 1871; d at Cambridge, Eng 19 Oct 1937). Although not a Canadian citizen, Rutherford made some of his most fundamental discoveries at McGill University and is considered the greatest experimental physicist of the century. He graduated from Canterbury College, Christchurch, in 1895, winning the 1851 Exhibition Scholarship, and went to Cambridge to work in the Cavendish Laboratory under J.J. Thomson.
When he came to McGill in 1898 as Macdonald Professor of Physics, Rutherford had begun studying radioactivity at Cambridge and his work at the Macdonald Physics Building, then one of the best equipped laboratories anywhere, was subsidized by William MACDONALD himself. Rutherford's main contribution was his elaboration in 1902 of the disintegration theory of the atom, a theory that completely transformed the understanding of radioactivity. The results of his work at McGill are synthesized in Radio-Activity (1904, rev 1905). At McGill Rutherford was assisted by future Nobel Prize winner Frederick Soddy who coauthored the revolutionary papers on radioactivity.
In 1904 Rutherford received the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society of London given to the author of the most important discovery of the preceding 2 years. He complained about his isolation from the great scientific centres of Europe, however, and in 1907 accepted a post at Manchester. One year later he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work at McGill.
In 1911 Rutherford made another fundamental discovery: the nucleus of the atom. In 1919 he succeeded Thomson as head of the Cavendish Laboratory, attracting students from all over the world, including many young Canadians. Knighted in 1914 and created baron in 1931, Rutherford kept in touch with his former students and colleagues in Canada; McGill named its physics laboratories after him.