Physicist and Nobel Prize winner, 1891-1974


James Chadwick was a student at the University of Manchester before World War One and became a member of staff afterwards. During the War he was interned in a German camp where he formed scientific collaborations that would continue to be important throughout his working life. Born in Manchester to a working-class family in 1891, Chadwick made remarkable scientific discoveries throughout his life. Living through both world wars, Chadwick was both impacted by, and had a significant impact on, the course of World War I and World War II respectively.

Earlier years at Manchester

At just sixteen years of age James Chadwick won a scholarship to study physics at Manchester University where he quickly became captivated by the work of Ernest Rutherford and soon began working together on a number of radioactivity studies. Before long, Chadwick had been awarded a further scholarship to travel to Germany and study with Hans Geiger, learning German and meeting many other eminent physicists, including Albert Einstein, in the process.

World War One

Upon the outbreak of World War One, Chadwick’s work in Germany ceased abruptly as he was imprisoned in the Ruhleben internment camp, situated just outside of Berlin, for the duration of the war. Conditions were difficult and the food was appalling, but this did not inhibit Chadwick’s scientific endeavours. To prevent boredom, Chadwick and a number of his fellow prisoners established various societies including a science circle of which Chadwick was the secretary. Members of this scientific group gave lectures to one another and even managed to set up a rudimentary laboratory with the cooperation of some of the guards.

Even though many chemicals were hard to acquire, Chadwick located a type of radioactive toothpaste that was on the market in Germany at the time, which he convinced the camp guards to supply. Using this radioactive material and other resources he could find in the camp, Chadwick and his fellow internees managed to build an electroscope in order to carry out simple experiments. It is in this internment camp that Chadwick met Charles Ellis who became attracted to physics through Chadwick’s scientific endeavours in the camp and continued to become his long-term colleague. After the war, they worked together and in collaboration with Rutherford, published a classic monograph entitled ‘Radiations and Radioactive Substances’ in 1930. A lasting and remarkable professional relationship had been forged in the unlikely circumstances of war.

Post-war scientific discoveries

Upon returning to England after the war, Rutherford immediately offered Chadwick a part-time teaching job at the University of Manchester and it is here that he started using an alpha-particle scattering technique to make the first direct measurements of the charge of atomic nuclei.

Eventually, after many experiments, Chadwick published his full paper ‘The Existence of a Neutron’ in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1932 and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 for his discovery. He went on to further investigate and advise international governments on the production of atomic weapons after the commencement of World War Two.

James Chadwick received a knighthood for his work on 1 January 1945 and further international honours from countries all over the world. He was known as a humble man who found public speaking difficult, but his staff and students always referenced his kindness and sense of overriding concern for his duty. He died in his sleep on 24 July 1974.


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