James Chadwick

... was born in 1891 in the Cheshire village of Bollington, where his father was a cotton spinner and his mother a domestic servant. In 1895 his parents moved to Manchester (20 miles away), leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents. In due course he was offered a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, but his family had to turn it down as they couldn't afford the nominal fees that still had to be paid. Instead he attended the Central Grammar School for Boys in Manchester, rejoining his parents there.

He went on to attend Manchester University, where he studied physics under Ernest Rutherford. He gained his MSc in 1913, and in the same year he went to Berlin to study under Hans Geiger. He was still there at the outbreak of the First World War, and he spent the war in an internment camp.

After the war, Chadwick followed Rutherford to the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, earning his PhD degree in 1921. He was Rutherford's Assistant Director of Research at the Cavendish for over a decade, at a time when it was one of the world's foremost centres for the study of physics. It was in 1932 that he made his most significant discovery, realising that the radiation that Frédéric and Irène Joliot–Curie had observed was not gamma radiation but neutrons – sub–atomic particles with zero electric charge – which he and Rutherford had been hypothesising for years. He published his findings after only two weeks of experimentation.

In 1935 he left the Cavendish Laboratory to become a professor of physics at the University of Liverpool, where he installed a cyclotron, turning a previously–antiquated laboratory into an important centre for the study of nuclear physics.

During the Second World War, Chadwick worked on the British programme for the development of an atomic bomb, and when this was merged with the US Manhattan Project he became an important member of that team. He was knighted in the 1945 New Year's honours list. He served as the British scientific advisor to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, but became uncomfortable with the trend toward the so–called 'Big Science' (increasing reliance on large–scale, government–funded projects). In 1948 he became the Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, retiring in 1959. He died in Cambridge in 1974, aged 82.

© Haydn Thompson 2017