Sir John Cockcroft was one of the most important and influential scientists of the modern era. He was the joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics (1951) for his pioneering work at the Cavendish Laboratory on the artificial disintegration of atoms.
His research facilitated the development of atomic power, nuclear medicine and accelerator science. He was the first Director of the British Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, and the first Master of Churchill College, Cambridge.
On Friday 22 September, several generations of the Cockcroft family, including Sir John’s surviving children, will gather at Churchill College to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Sir John’s birth and the 50th of his death. They will mark the occasion by handing over to the Churchill Archives Centre a family treasure trove of scrapbooks, photograph albums and private correspondence illustrating the personal life of this most public scientist. Here it will join his Nobel Prize medal and complement his scientific papers, including his notebooks for his ground breaking experiments. The new material includes:
- Sir John’s diary entry for 4 November 1916: “4 signallers casualties, 2 killed, 2 wounded, may have to go up line. Saw infantry back from trenches. Heartbreaking, hardly drag themselves along, all but gone.”
- Gamov’s letter to Cockcroft of 7 September 1932, congratulating him on his discovery [first artificial disintegration of atomic nuclei].
- Scrapbooks containing material on the Tizard mission (1940) which gave the Americans, on Churchill’s orders, our scientific secrets regarding the possibility of making an atomic bomb and the newly invented cavity magnetron. Sir Henry Tizard led the mission with John Cockcroft as his deputy.
Dame Athene Donald, current Master of Churchill College, said:
“Both as Master and as Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, I am conscious that I owe a great personal debt to Sir John. But it is fair to say that his work has had a lasting legacy which continues to influence us all. This new material will sit alongside his existing scientific papers in the Archives Centre and will enable future generations to know the man behind the scientist.”
Christopher Cockcroft, Sir John’s son, felt that,
“The time was right for the family to share this material and for it to be conserved for future generations to learn the full story of this remarkable man: a secondary school boy from Todmorden, who survived the First World War, and worked his way to the top of his profession; a man who firmly believed in the fellowship of man and did much to foster understanding between people and nations”.
Michael Smyth, author of a forthcoming biography of Sir John, highlighted the set of scrapbooks kept by Sir John’s mother and the many letters to his wife which together provide a unique insight into his life.
The reception and handover will take place in the Jock Colville Hall, Churchill College at from 6pm on the evening of Friday 22 September. All are welcome.
The event will mark the beginning of the Churchill College Alumni Association Weekend, and will be the first of several events during the weekend celebrating Sir John’s life and legacy.
Notes for Editors
There will be a chance to photograph the Cockcroft family with the new material and Sir John’s Nobel Prize medal.
The Churchill Archives Centre is part of Churchill College, Cambridge. It houses the personal papers of Sir Winston Churchill , Baroness Thatcher and Sir John Major along side those of other politicians, diplomats, military leaders and scientists. It is recognised as one of the leading repositories in the United Kingdom for modern personal papers.
The new deposit of Cockcroft Papers will be conserved and catalogued, and will then be made available to researchers in the reading rooms of the Churchill Archives Centre. These are open by appointment from Mon to Fri (9am to 5pm). All are welcome.