The reason you’ve come this far is probably because you’ve heard of James Chadwick (1891-1974), who discovered the neutron. A brilliant physicist was part of a historical process that led to the transition from classical to quantum mechanics. The biography of James Chadwick shows how scientific progress has evolved through a chain reaction. It’s a must-see!

Summary of James Chadwick’s life

The index

  • I am a humble but brilliant young man

  • Physics in a mathematician’s body

  • World War I and James Chadwick

  • 20th century science’s missing link

  • A scientist of exemplary character: James Chadwick

Youthful but humble

In Bollington, England, John Joseph Chadwick and Anne Mary Knowles were a humble couple. The couple worked in low-paying trades; he spun cotton and she cleaned houses. In spite of this, they had James Chadwick on October 20, 1891, his maternal grandfather’s name.

In spite of the fact that they were hard-working people, their economic situation was not very good. In 1895, the couple decided to move to Manchester to get better job opportunities, leaving little James in Annie’s parents’ care.

The little boy missed his parents, but this did not prevent him from getting excellent grades at Bollington Cross Elementary. As a young man destined to be a great scientist, he wasted no opportunity to demonstrate his ingenuity and math skills. Thus, little James was able to acquire a scholarship to study at the Grammar School in Manchester, which was more prestigious.

Because they were such a humble family, they couldn’t cover the remaining expenses. The little boy reunited with his parents even though his grandparents rejected the scholarship; even if it meant attending an average college in Manchester.

Upon returning home, James was able to meet his two younger brothers, Harry and Hubert. Additionally, he discovered he had a little sister who passed away very young.


At 16, James Chadwick took two exams to win a scholarship at two different universities… and won them both! He chose Victoria University of Manchester to pursue his higher education.

A physicist disguised as a mathematician

James Chadwick began his university studies at the Faculty of Physical Sciences in 1908. Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, was the director of the department where he would study for his degree. Rutherford tutored him throughout.


In fact, James was more interested in mathematics than in physics. In fact, he enrolled in Physical Sciences by accident instead of enrolling in this discipline to pursue as a lifestyle. Did the young scientist ever imagine that his “mistake” would lead to a Nobel Prize?

He was asked to design a radioactivity meter that could compare signals from different sources as part of his senior research project. In honor of the Nobel Prize couple Marie and Pierre Curie, discoverers of radium and polonium, he should use the “curie” unit of measurement.

The young scientist accepted his mentor’s proposal and set to work designing the equipment to his mentor’s specifications. Rutherford’s approach was wrong, however. In order to avoid misunderstandings, the young man decided to find the right perspective on his own before telling his teacher.

James Chadwick came to Rutherford in 1911 with the design for the radioactivity meter. Using his own mathematical method, he graduated with first class honors and published his first scientific paper with his academic tutor.

The First World War and James Chadwick

After graduating, James continues his studies in radioactivity, which at the time was a very popular topic among scientists. Under the extreme climate of Berlin, he studied beta radiation with Hans Geiger in central Europe following his Master of Science degree in 1912.

While his studies were hampered by the mystery of the continuous spectrum, the First World War broke out during his stay in Germany. The German state interned him in the Ruhleben internment camp since he was from the “enemy side.”


A makeshift laboratory was set up in the stables during James Chadwick’s stay in the hospital, allowing him to continue his research with recyclable materials. It’s just like in the movies!

On November 11, 1918, an armistice was finally signed between Germany and the Triple Alliance, ending the war after four years. In the same year, Chadwick wrote all the results of his captivity research once he returned home to Manchester.

20th century science’s missing link

James Chadwick worked as Cavendish’s lab assistant after the war, alongside Rutherford. Due to this, he concentrated on nuclear physics rather than radiation spectra in his research. His actions led him to one of the most important discoveries of his life at this point.

At the age of 34, he set his sights on Aileen Stewart-Brown, the daughter of a Liverpool stockbroker. Months later, he managed to conquer her with all the wiles of her intellectual man. Judith and Joanna were born in 1927, the year Chadwick was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

He continued to pursue his arduous investigations despite his recent and happy marriage. He continued to support his now-chief’s research and mentor novice students after earning his Ph.D. in Philosophy. It was Rutherford’s goal to find a particle that would counteract the repulsive effect between protons in the nucleus.

Finally, luck smiled on them when a scientific experiment in Germany accidentally produced an unusual form of radiation. Polonium alpha particles, which were thought to contain only two protons until now, bombarded a sheet of beryllium.

They reaffirmed their suspicions after subsequent investigations with the same type of radiation, particularly those of Irène Joliot-Curie (daughter of Marie Curie) and her husband Frédéric. They didn’t see the neutron because it was right in front of their noses! James Chadwick, however, knew what to look for, unlike them. In May 1932, after experimenting for two weeks with an apparatus of his own design, he published The Existence of a Neutron.

A scientist of exemplary character: James Chadwick

The Royal Society published Chadwick’s paper, causing a stir in the scientific community. A number of mysteries of nature can be solved by the neutron if certain considerations are taken into account. A new particle should be part of the nucleus of the atom, according to one of the arguments. Soon after, Niels Bohr introduced it into his atomic model.

For his transcendental contribution to science, James Chadwick was awarded the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society that same year. Also in 1950 and 1951, he won the Copley and Franklin Medals for important but minor research.

In addition to the discovery of the neutron, Enrico Fermi’s research on induced radioactivity led to the invention of the atomic bomb -for better or worse.


While on vacation with his family in Sweden, James Chadwick witnessed the outbreak of World War II. His flights were cancelled, and he wasn’t in the mood to spend the next few years of his life in hospital-again-so he sailed home to England.

He lent his scientific knowledge to the Manhattan Project during World War II, but his later years were as calm as anyone’s. Because of his advancing age, he rarely left his apartment. On 24 July 1974, he died of natural causes, and his laboratory in Liverpool, where he worked for decades, was named in his honor.

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