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Famous Canterbury graduate Ernest Rutherford turns 150

27 August 2021

The University of Canterbury is commemorating 150 years since the birth of one of its most famous scientists, academics and alumni, despite the postponement of some of the planned celebratory events due to the Covid-19 lockdown.


Ernest Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances. It’s thanks to the scientific discoveries made by Rutherford and his peers that television, radio, sonar and telephones were invented.

Among the treasures the University of Canterbury holds in its archives are Rutherford’s large medal collection and the original declaration of students signed by Rutherford on his entry to the University. On the same page are the signatures of his fellow scientist John Angus (Jack) Erskine, whose bequest established UC’s prestigious Erskine Fellowship, and New Zealand’s first Māori graduate, political leader Sir Apirana Ngata.

The UC Foundation 2021 Golden Graduates event in celebration of 150 years since Rutherford’s birth was due to take place on his birthday, 30 August, with guest speaker retired University of Canterbury physicist Dr John Campbell to give a presentation on Rutherford’s life. The University of Canterbury’s College of Science was also due to hold a live hands-on science show for all ages in the Ernest Rutherford building (appropriately enough), which is also postponed.

The University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Library archive holds a large collection of original and secondary source material relating to Rutherford, including 26 academic diplomas, scientific papers, a short film and sound recordings, as well as Rutherford’s medals, including his Nobel Prize medals. The University also has two replica sets of the original Nobel medals. One set is on display in the College of Science’s Ernest Rutherford building on UC’s Ilam Campus.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern officially opened the state-of-the-art Ernest Rutherford building in 2018, part of a $220million scientific research centre at the University of Canterbury. Guest of honour was Lord Rutherford’s great-granddaughter, geophysicist Professor Mary Fowler, who was Master of Darwin College, Cambridge, England, until she retired in 2020.

As complex as a hospital to construct, with over 30 gases and liquids piped into many different laboratories, the Ernest Rutherford building includes specialist teaching and research laboratories for physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, geography and biological sciences. Over five floors there are numerous laboratories, a UAV/drone room, 3D medical imaging, a cloud chamber, radioactivity lab, a superconduction magnet lab and a herbarium.

The University of Canterbury’s historic town site, where Rutherford studied and home of the University for over 100 years (until 1974 when the University completed the move to its 76-hectare Ilam campus), was gifted to the people of Christchurch and became known as the Arts Centre. After closing post-quake for five years, the historic Rutherford’s Den re-opened to the public at the Arts Centre in 2016.

About Ernest, Lord Rutherford 

Ernest Rutherford was one of New Zealand’s most successful and respected scientists. Born near Nelson in 1871, he was educated at Nelson College, before attending Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury). In 1892 he gained a BA in Pure Mathematics and Latin, followed with a Master of Arts (with double First Class Honours) in Mathematics, Mathematical Physics, and Physical Science, and a BSc in Chemistry and Geology.

According to Rutherford biographer and retired University of Canterbury academic Dr John Campbell, Rutherford started research at Canterbury College in 1893 as a requirement of his Master’s degree.

“The college didn't have a physics lab so initially he worked in various spaces in the Chemistry department, ‘the old tin shed’, but had nowhere where he could leave his equipment set up. He tried various corridors and then the Great Hall, until it was needed for end-of-year exams. In the early summer of 1893-4 he worked in one of the dens below the tiered seating under the clock tower lecture rooms. It is not known for sure which one. In April of 1894 he and Jack Erskine applied for the den under the west end of the clock tower rooms. There he completed the work on the high frequency magnetisation of iron … Prior to Rutherford, the Den had been used for undergraduates to hang their gowns when they were leaving the college grounds.”

In 1895 Rutherford began studying at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where he conducted studies into electromagnetic waves, and radioactivity.

Rutherford accepted a professorship at McGill University in 1898, and remained there till 1907 when he transferred to Manchester University. He continued his studies into radioactivity, and applied them to the structure of the atom. In 1904 he was awarded the Rumford Medal, his first major science prize, followed by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. After contributing to the war effort by studying means of detecting submarines, he capped his career by becoming the Director of Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory in 1919. Rutherford died in 1937, having been knighted and elevated to the Peerage as Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson.

The Rutherford Medal Collection was placed into the University of Canterbury’s care by his widow Lady Rutherford in 1938. The collection consists of 36 medals, insignias and plaques. Included are 34 medals presented to Rutherford in his lifetime, (23 dedicated awards, and 11 commemorative) and a further two medals struck in 1971 to commemorate the centenary of Rutherford’s birth.

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