Rutherford at Canterbury University College

Simon Clarke


In August 1895 Ernest Rutherford left New Zealand for the first time of his life, bound for England where he was to become a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. He was the first graduate student admitted to Cambridge who had not been an undergraduate there. Under the supervision of Professor J.J. Thomson, he initially investigated the possibilities of detecting electromagnetic waves over distances and through objects, and then later the use of x-rays to make gases conductors of electricity. His talents as a scientist soon recognised, in 1898 Rutherford was offered a position as Professor of Physics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

At McGill, Rutherford had excellent facilities at his disposal thanks to wealthy patrons. He turned his attention to radioactive elements, publishing his first book Radioactivity in 1904. Along with Frederick Soddy, he discovered that certain atoms naturally disintegrated to become other types of atoms. From this he was able to determine the minimum age of the earth, discovering that it had to be much older than was previously thought.

Rutherford moved to the University of Manchester in 1907 and won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908 for the work he had done at McGill. He contined his research into radioactivity and with his colleagues discovered that alpha rays coming from radioactive atoms bounced back or deflected from atoms of metal such as gold. Rutherford theorised the structure of an atom that we know today: a nucleus orbited by one or more electrons. He received a knighthood for his efforts in 1914 and spent World War I investigating methods of detecting enemy submarines, pioneering sonar technology.

After the war, Rutherford returned to Cambridge, succeeding J.J. Thomson as head of the Cavendish Laboratory. He supervised John Cockroft and Ernest Walton in creating a machine that could split the nucleus of an atom in 1932. His earlier experiments at Manchester had enabled him to split atoms, but this was the first time that anyone had split the nucleus of an atom. In 1931 Rutherford was made a member of the British House of Lords taking the title Lord Rutherford of Nelson. During the 1930s he helped Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Germany secure jobs elsewhere. In 1937 Rutherford died unexpectantly of a strangulated hernia. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey.


When considering such a glittering career, one thinks about its foundation, about Rutherford’s upbringing and early studies before he left New Zealand, and about whether there were indications of what was to come.

Ernest was born on August 30, 1871 near Nelson which is at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand, the fourth of twelve children of James and Martha Rutherford. James was a miller of flax, an industry which had its ups and downs but on the whole the family were comfortable. The older boys, including Ernest, sometimes helped their father at work thereby nourishing practical problem-solving abilities. Martha had been a school-teacher and her influence on the children was evident. She ensured that they had abilities beyond their years before they started school, and nearly all of them achieved well once there. Ernest's older brother George won a scholarship to attend Nelson College secondary school and several years later, at age fifteen, Ernest did the same (although at his second attempt). In this he was assisted by having an extremely able teacher at Havelock School. Several of Jacob Reynolds’s pupils excelled academically, either winning or coming close to winning various scholarships. The same year, however, was tinged with tragedy when two of Ernest's younger brothers, Herbert and Charles, were drowned in a boating accident.

In 1887, Ernest started at Nelson College, settling in as a boarder. Again he benefitted from having a talented teacher, this time William Littlejohn, who taught Ernest the importance of discipline and perseverence. At the end of his first year, Ernest won prizes for classics and history and at the end of his second he added prizes for mathematics and French. He also sat an examination for a scholarship to university but missed out. The Rutherford family had meanwhile moved to Taranaki in the North Island where opportunities for flax-milling were better. After spending a summer there, Ernest returned to Nelson College for a third year, at the end of which he again tried for a scholarship to university. This time he was successful, coming fourth in all of New Zealand in an exam where the top ten students received scholarships.


So in 1890 Rutherford enrolled for a B.A. at Canterbury College in Christchurch, located on the east coast of the middle of the South Island. English settlers had founded Christchurch in 1850 and forty years on it was a city of 50,000 inhabitants. Canterbury College had been established in 1873 as a constituent part of the University of New Zealand (it became the independent University of Canterbury in 1961). From its beginning, Canterbury College admitted women as students. The grounds and buildings, located near the city centre, were designed to resemble a college of Oxford or Cambridge. (Today these now serve as an arts centre, with the university re-located to larger grounds in Ilam, west of the city centre.) Being a student at university was at that time already a sign that Ernest was a member of the intellectual elite in that during his time at Canterbury College there were merely about 150 taught by a handful of professors.

In his first year at university, Rutherford took Latin, French, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics. In the end-of-year exams he shared the mathematics prize with Willie Marris, with whom he also shared accomodation in Montreal Street. This was to be the start of a rivalry for being top in maths with Marris, who would later become Sir William Marris and the governor of the province of Assam in India. Interestingly, Ernest was usually narrowly beaten by Marris but years later Marris conceded that Ernest was the greater mathematician, putting the exams results down to exam nervousness on Ernest’s part. Luckily for Rutherford, he was awarded the money accompanying the prize because Marris had already won for Latin and a student could receive no more than one prize. These much-needed funds enabled Ernest to continue at university as unlike some of the other students, his family could not afford to pay his upkeep.

1891 saw Rutherford continue his studies including courses in physics he took for both terms of the year. As well as college exams, at the end of the year he had to sit university exams in Latin, English, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics. He passed all these and hence completed the first part of his B.A. degree. The following year saw him complete the second and last part by passing exams in physics and French. Rutherford had his B.A.

These three years were not confined purely to study. Ernest played rugby for the College third team and he also took part in a debating society, on one occasion speaking in favour of the motion that the influence of the modern press was ‘excessive and dangerous.’ He was also a founding member of the Science Society which held discussions and demonstrations on a range of scientific matters. In April 1891 the society held an open night for the general public, attracting over 500 people, at which Ernest demonstrated fluorescent tubes and phosphorescent paint in a darkened room.

As well as Marris, among his classmates were Apirina Ngata who would later become the first Maori member of parliament and Jack Erskine who would also become a distinguished scientist and engineer.

Perhaps of greatest personal effect on Rutherford were his teachers at Canterbury. Alexander Bickerton was an unorthodox professor of chemistry and physics who made up in enthusiasm and encouragement for what he lacked in technical training. The chemistry and physics building - or 'the old tin shed' as it was known - was his domain. Bickerton also gave evening lectures for the general public, attracting many to his performances which often contained small explosions and other entertainments. He was also a staunch defender of his own theory about the appearance of new stars, which he struggled to gain official recognition for. Bickerton and Rutherford would remain lifelong friends, with Ernest writing his obituary for The Times in 1929. Rutherford's other influential teacher was the Professor of Mathematics, Charles Cook. Although conventional, Cook was a teacher of the highest order and would stand Ernest in good stead for his future work.

First Research

At the end of his third and final year of the B.A., Ernest also sat an exam in math for a scholarship to study for an M.A. He won the scholarship and so returned to Canterbury College in 1893 for a fourth year. The M.A. degree required students to undertake their own original research and in doing this, Rutherford's talents as a scientist began to shine. Ernest chose to investigate the magneticism of iron. By wrapping wire around a piece of iron and passing an electrical current through the wire, the iron became magnetised. What, wondered Ernest, were the effects on this magneticisation if the current was rapidly switched on and off? To find out he created a timing device capable of intervals of one hundred thousandth of a second which he used to determine the magnetisation of several types of iron and steels, and the depth of penetration of the magnetisation. This research formed the basis of a paper called ‘Magnetic Viscosity’ that was published two years later in the journal Transactions of the New Zealand Institute volume 28, 1895. (This was to be his second publication. His first was based on his research of the following year but was published in an earlier issue of the same journal.)

Ernest’s research was hampered by the facilities at college, or more precisely the lack of them. The chemistry and physics department did not have a physics laboratory to work in, so Ernest had to make do with various lecture rooms and the main hall when they were not in use, and with the store room of the old tin shed. It soon became apparent that these were less than optimal because the apparatus that Rutherford was using was sensitive to the slightest of vibrations. He needed somewhere with a concrete base to avoid this problem and settled on a cloak room underneath a lecture hall known as ‘the den’ which was to prove adequate for his purposes. As Ernest’s research advanced, Professor Bickerton seldom interfered as it became clear that Rutherford was becoming a confident independent researcher. Today the den is preserved as a small museum known as ‘Rutherford's Den’ the highlight of which features a hologram image of an elderly Ernest reminiscing about his early days at Canterbury College.

During this time, Rutherford's future was still unclear. There exists a letter to Ernest dated September 7 1893 from John Stevenson, a former classmate who was studying in Edinburgh. The letter describes conditions in Edinburgh, the quality of the teaching, the availability of scholarships and so on, all of which suggests Ernest may have written to Stevenson asking for advice, in contemplation of studying medicine there. Rutherford also applied for a job as a teacher at Christchurch Boys’ High School but was unsuccesful.

At the end of 1893, Rutherford sat his M.A. exams and received double first class honours - a rare feat - in mathematics and physics. With few other options, Rutherford decided to continue his studies, enroling for a B.Sc. at the beginning of 1894, taking courses in chemistry and geology with the hope of winning a research scholarship to go overseas. In particular he had in mind the 1851 Exhibition Scholarship - so named because the funds derived from the London exhibition of that year. This prize required evidence of ability to conduct original research so Ernest decided to continue his earlier investigations, looking at whether iron was magnetised at even higher frequencies of current. He magnetised iron needles and then held them close to a magnet suspended by a fibre and was able to measure the magnetisation of the iron by observing the movement of the suspended magnet. He also determined the depth of penetration of the magnetisation by submerging the needles into boiling acid thereby removed the outer surface and then testing to see whether the magnetisation remained. This research formed the basis of Rutherford's first published paper, ‘Magnetization of Iron by High-frequency Discharges’ in Transactions of the New Zealand Institute volume 27, 1894.

While waiting for the news of the 1851 Scholarship, Ernest had been filling in as a not very successful temporary teacher at Christchurch Boys’. He had also been a boarder with a Mrs Newton for the last few years while studying in Christchurch and over time a romance had developed between Ernest and her daughter May. Before he left New Zealand they got engaged. However they were not to be married until 1900, when having completed his studies at Cambridge and secured a job at McGill, he could be sure of his ability to support a family.

News of the scholarship finally came in July 1895. The examiners were impressed with Rutherford’s research but had initially recommended another candidate for the 1851 Scholarship. When this candidate had to turn down the offer - because it prevented students from taking paid employment at the same time, and was insufficient to support his family - it was awarded to Ernest. He was on his way to England.

Two facts stand out about Rutherford’s time at Canterbury College. The first is the warmth of his relations with those he met there. When he left New Zealand he took with him a testimonial from Alexander Bickerton which included the comment:

Personally Rutherford is of so kindly a disposition and so willing to help other students over their difficulties that he has endeared himself to all who have been brought into contact with him.

These comments indicate Ernest's relationship with Bickerton as much as with other students. In 1910 Rutherford contributed financially to a memorial prize in mathematics in honour of his old professor Charles Cook. After Rutherford returned for a triumphal tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1925, he wrote:

At Christchurch I had a great reception as it was my old university town and Professor Farr [the Professor of Physics at Canterbury] had been indefatigable in seeing that the christchurch celebrations were to be the highwater mark of doings in New Zealand.

The second striking fact about Ernest’s early studies is the extent of his education. In receiving his B.A., M.A.(Hons), and B.Sc he took courses and exams in Latin, French, English, botany, biology, and geology as well as the more obvious subjects of physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Even as late as his fifth year, he sat exams in Latin and English for his B.Sc. This wide range of subjects may have contributed to a breadth of vision that would mark his scientific career. Isaiah Berlin writes that

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. ... [T]he words ... mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.

While one hesitates to attribute to Rutherford the label given the specialised nature of his work, compared to the other geniuses of science such as Newton, Darwin, and Einstein who were hedgehogs, Ernest was a fox. Instead of making one single momentous discovery, he was party to a number of them. One cannot help but wonder whether the broad range of discoveries that Rutherford made would have occurred if his education at Canterbury had been narrowly specialised.



Several biographies of Rutherford were consulted for this article. The most recent is Rutherford: Scientist Supreme by John Campbell. It is also the most thorough concerning Rutherford’s early life in New Zealand, sorting out the facts from the myths about that time. I have relied a great deal on this excellent book.


Isaiah Berlin, ‘Hedgehog and Fox’, in his The Proper Study of Mankind (London: Chatto and Windus, 1997).

Campbell, John, Rutherford: Scientist Supreme (Christchurch: AAS Publications, 1999).

Chadwick, Sir James, The Collected Papers of Lord Rutherford of Nelson, Volume1: New Zealand – Cambridge – Montreal (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962). [Contains Rutherford’s two articles from the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.]

Evans, Ivor, Man of Power (London: Scientific Book Club, 1939).

Eve, Arthur, Rutherford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939).

Heilbron, J.L., Ernest Rutherford and the Explosion of Atoms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Marsden, Ernest, Correspondence of Lord Rutherford of Nelson (London: Rutherford Memorial Committee of the Royal Society, 1956).

New Zealand Encyclopedia, Sixth edition, (Auckland: Bateman, 2005).

Rutherford Collection, 5 boxes of archives held at the Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury.

Rutherford Web-site,

Canterbury Unversity College

Rutherford's lampshade (made from his degree certificate)
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Rutherford's chemistry shed
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Rutherford's den
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