Ernest was born in Brightwater 30 Aug 1871, the fourth of 12 children born to James and Martha Rutherford who migrated to NZ in 1843. He attended Foxhill School and later Havelock School.
He attended Nelson Boys College from Form 5 where he rose to sergeant in the Nelson College Cadet Corps, graduating as Head Boy in 1889 with a scholarship to attend Canterbury College in Christchurch.
Rutherford attained a BA in Mathematics and Physical Science (practical physics) in 1892. He then moved to Montreal on the offer of a full Professorship at the age of 26. Though engaged to be married to Mary Newton, the offer was too good to refuse. They were married in NZ in 1900. In 1907 he was head-hunted by Manchester University where he discovered the nuclear structure of atoms and became the first person to split an atom. In 1908 he was awarded a Nobel Prize, the first for a New Zealand educated person.
He was knighted in New Year Honours of 1914. This year was the conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and over 300 British and European scientists came to Australia. Three days before docking in Australia the ship's wireless picked up the news that war had started in Europe. By and large, the Conference continued as planned with the British Association providing funding support for their German counterparts until leaving from Adelaide. They remained part of the delegation throughout the Conference but the first stop back was Britain where they were interned. Mary was very keen to reach NZ before her younger brother (Capt Charles Newton, a doctor) left for the war. Finally, the Rutherfords departed from Auckland on the SS Niagra on 1 December 1914.
They arrived back in England to find the universities were drained of young able researchers and many died in the war – something Rutherford campaigned about for some time. The futility of war was demonstrated by the fact that two scientists who had worked together on crucial atomic experiments before the war, found themselves in opposing trenches in the same sector of the front line in France.
Meanwhile Charles Newton, whilst coordinating a hospital medical field station at Gallipoli, recorded the successful evacuation of troops at the end of the campaign. ‘Over 8000 Australian and NZ troops lie buried there’ he wrote.
In 1916 Rutherford joined the Admiralty’s Board of Invention and Research to research submarine detection. In part, the work was triggered by the loss of 1000 troops on ships torpedoed in the Aegean Sea in 1915. His first (secret) reports concluded that a submerged submarine could only be detected by the underwater sounds it emitted, and that the best platform for listening was a submerged submarine.
In April America belatedly joined the Allied war efforts and Rutherford was part of a joint French-British delegation that travelled to the USA to transfer knowledge to American scientists. On returning to the UK he began work again on the proton emissions from gaseous materials bombarded with alpha particles. In December Rutherford wrote to Neils Bohr that “I am also trying to break up the atom by this method . . . Regard this as private.”
After the war the scientists who survived slowly picked up the relationships the war had split apart.
He was made Baron Rutherford of Nelson in 1931 and became President of the Academic Assistance Council to help German refugees.
He died in Cambridge (UK) 19 October 1937.