Rutherford: A History
Photo: Girish Gupta

Rutherford: A History

| Feb. 26, 2009 | Manchester, England

Photo: Girish Gupta

HEALTH RISKS are the first thing that comes to mind when radioactive contamination is mentioned nowadays, but back in 1912 when renowned physicist Sir Arthur Schuster spoke at the opening ceremony of the Rutherford Building’s new wing, he was solely concerned with the hindrance caused to research on radioactive sources.

Back in 1908, Ernest Rutherford conducted his famous experiments to determine the nature of alpha radiation in rooms 2.62 and 2.63 of the Rutherford Building, handling and often spilling radium and lead on the floors and desks.

The eminent scientist only began to become more careful when he noted the value and scarcity of his radioactive samples. When Hermann Joseph Muller published research showing the genetic effects of radiation exposure in 1927, the world realised the dangers. The radium-discovering Marie Curie and radium-drinking socialite Eben Byers died from exposure in the early 1930s, captivating the public’s imagination.

These dangers were not, however, picked up on by scientists working in the Rutherford Building until the second half of the century. In 2004, the building was completely refurbished.

Doctors Neil Todd, Don O’ Boyle and John Churcher finished up a report on the history of the building’s problems in August last year. Their report contained nearly 300 pages of analysis and correspondence between various academics and health protection agencies; yet it yields no significant conclusion except for its last line: “The existence of … uncertainties is in part due to the absence of a proactive attitude by the University towards certain possible risks to its staff, and a casual approach to record-keeping in the past.“

The three authors declined to comment and Dr Todd still works for the University of Manchester.

Professor David Coggon was brought in to head an independent investigation into the state of the building six months ago. “Anecdotal reports from the past [suggest] that radiation measurements were made,” he said.

Coggon told of how film badges had been worn in the 1960s and 1970s and spoke of possible monitoring at other times. He defended the University, saying: “It is not surprising that records were destroyed if they showed nothing untoward.”

“Here in Southampton, we have asbestos but we don’t have to remove it,” he said when asked about the control of dangerous substances. “You just have to make sure it’s adequately controlled.”

The scientist was eager to point out that the public must understand the risk of radiation. “I’ve had a lot of people in a lot of anxiety because of misunderstandings about the science.

“Pancreatic cancer is not the sort of tumour that one would expect from ionising radiation,” he said, dispelling theories that Wagner and Reader may have died from exposure in the building.


1900 – New Physical Laboratories open for the Department of Physics.

1908 – Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds demonstrate that the alpha particle emitted in many forms of radioactive decay is equivalent to a helium nucleus. Their experiments are carried out in rooms 2.62 and 2.63. Rutherford receives 450mg of radium, which he considers “more precious than gold”.

1911 – Professor Georg von Hevesy attempts to separate the Pb-210 isotope from several hundred kilograms of radioactive Czechoslovakian lead stored in the building’s basement.

1912 – A new extension is built. In his speech to mark the event, Sir Arthur Schuster quips that the extension is necessary in order to “keep the new laboratories uncontaminated by radioactive matter”. The problem is recognised but not considered a cause for medical concern, just a reason for experiments’ failure.

1967 – The Dept. of Physics vacates to be replaced by the Dept. of Psychology.

1970s, 1980s – There are vague recollections of surveys being conducted, but no evidence remains.

1999 – The building is decontaminated for the first time. Documents of previous surveys are destroyed to save space while further surveys are conducted.

2004 – The building is significantly refurbished.

2007 – Dr Hugh Wagner dies from pancreatic cancer.

2008 – Dr Arthur Reader dies from pancreatic cancer. Professor David Coggon meets with Drs Neil Todd, Don O’ Boyle and John Churcher. All are involved with the investigation.

2009 – The rooms are evacuated. A full report by Prof Coggon is expected later this year.