William Henry Bragg (1862-1942)
Physicist and Nobel Laureate

William Henry Bragg (1862-1942) Just over 100 years ago Leeds was the scene of one of the great scientific advances of the twentieth century: the development of the new science of X-ray crystallography, key to the understanding of the structure of our world and of life itself. The two brilliant figures behind this work were father and son William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg, who in a few short years before the First World War worked together in Leeds on ground-breaking research and developed essential apparatus for this pioneering new branch of science.

William Henry Bragg came to Leeds in 1909 to take up the post of Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University, after more than twenty years in Australia. He was originally from Cumberland, where he was born in 1862 at his father’s farm near Wigton. His mother died when he was only seven and he was sent to live with his uncle in Market Harborough, where he went to the grammar school, then on to college in the Isle of Man. He won a scholarship to Cambridge to study mathematics and graduated brilliantly. On a last minute impulse he applied for the post of Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Adelaide and to his surprise was appointed. He was 23.  

He was thrilled at the prospect of adventure, independence, and sunshine. The voyage to his new life took six weeks – time to brush up his physics. His years at Adelaide were happy and productive, professionally and socially. He met and married his wife Gwendoline, and they had two sons and a daughter. He worked hard to build up his university department and develop his research. He was increasingly drawn to the exciting new discoveries in electricity and radiation, particularly X-rays, and gave popular lectures and demonstrations. His research prospered.

But he was frustrated by his distance from European centres of excellence. When a post in Leeds came up he applied, on condition there would be extra money for research. When he arrived in 1909 the teaching arrangements (a large ‘shed’!) were disappointing, and Gwendoline was shocked by dark, smoky Leeds, the back-to-back houses, the pallid babies and rickety children. Fortunately they soon found a house they loved – Rosehurst in Grosvenor Road, with its beautiful, peaceful garden – and a country cottage near Bolton Abbey, where Gwendoline could paint. They made new friends among the Leeds elite, joined the Philosophical and Literary Society and the Arts Club, and enjoyed the social life of the city, alongside various charitable activities – they were still distressed by the gulf between the comfortably-off like themselves (four servants!) and the wretched conditions of the poor.

At the university William concentrated on improving teaching and research facilities and attracting an outstanding team around him. He pursued his earlier investigations into radioactivity, in regular touch with his friend, fellow physicist Ernest Rutherford. His other collaborator was his elder son William Lawrence, who was studying maths and physics at Cambridge but worked with him in vacations. A turning point came in the summer of 1912 on a family holiday at Cloughton near Scarborough, when a letter arrived reporting recent findings by German physicists. This inspired their research over the following year – William built the first X ray spectrometer in the Leeds laboratories and Lawrence worked on interpreting the results, allowing them to study and determine the crystal structure of certain materials.

This thrilling period of collaboration was cut short in 1914 by war. Both William’s sons enlisted. Lawrence won honours at the front in France, working on the development of sound-ranging equipment, but his younger brother, Robert, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. In that year William published the results of his and Lawrence’s research, and news came that they had been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, the only father-son award ever made.

Meanwhile William was working with the Admiralty on submarine detection and had to move. The family left Leeds in 1915 and when the war ended settled in London, where he had been appointed professor at University College, later moving to the Royal Institution. He was knighted in 1920 and won many honours. In the thirties he played a major role in popularising science, particularly through radio. As president of the Royal Society he advised the government on scientific resources for WW2, and helped support scientists fleeing from fascist regimes. He died, in office, on March 10, 1942.

His son William Lawrence had an equally distinguished career. The work they did together in Leeds on the brink of WWI led to discoveries in many other branches of science (28 Nobel prizes were won using the Bragg method), and was invaluable in solving the structure of DNA.

Eveleigh Bradford
June 2017