Rutherford was born at Brightwater, near Nelson, New Zealand. He studied at Nelson College and graduated at Canterbury College, now the University of Canterbury, with three degrees and two years of research at the forefront of electrical technology.
In 1895 Rutherford travelled to England for postgraduate study at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University (1895-1898). There he briefly held the world record for the distance over which wireless waves were detected and he named the alpha and beta rays.
In 1898 Rutherford was appointed to the chair of physics at McGill University where he did the work which gained him the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He had demonstrated that radioactivity was the spontaneous disintegration of atoms.
In 1917 he returned to the Cavendish as Director. Under him, Nobel Prizes were awarded to Chadwick for discovering the neutron, Cockcroft[?] and Walton[?] for splitting the atom using a particle accelerator and Appleton[?] for demonstrating the existence of the ionosphere.
He was made a life peer (a rare distinction for a New Zealander) and became Ernest Lord Rutherford of Nelson. He appears on New Zealand's hundred dollar bill and has appeared on postage stamps of Russia (1971), Canada (1971), Sweden (1968) and New Zealand (1971 and 1999).