The Life and Achievements of William Henry Bragg

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William Henry Bragg (2 July 1862 – 12 March 1942) was a British physicist and mathematician who made significant contributions to the fields of X-ray crystallography and spectroscopy.

Early Life And Education

William Henry Bragg, an eminent physicist, was born on July 2, 1862, in Westward, near Wigton, Cumberland, England. His early life was marked by tragedy with the death of his mother when he was just seven years old, after which he was raised by his uncle in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. Bragg’s education began at the Grammar School in Market Harborough and continued at King William’s College on the Isle of Man. His academic prowess led him to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a scholarship. He excelled in mathematics, securing the position of third wrangler in 1884 and achieving first-class honors in the mathematical tripos the following year.

Career And Achievements

William Henry Bragg career took a pivotal turn when he was appointed as the Elder Professor of Mathematics and Experimental Physics at the University of Adelaide at the young age of 23. Bragg’s work in the field of X-ray diffraction and spectroscopy, alongside his son Lawrence Bragg, earned them the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for their services in the analysis of crystal structures using X-rays. His accolades include the Barnard Medal (1915), Matteucci Medal (1915), Rumford Medal (1916), and the prestigious Copley Medal (1930). Knighted in 1920, Bragg was also honored with the Order of Merit in 1931 and served as the President of the Royal Society from 1935 to 1940. His legacy continues to influence the scientific field, with the mineral Braggite named in honor of him and his son. Bragg’s dedication to science is reflected in his numerous honorary doctorates and memberships in leading foreign societies, marking him as a distinguished figure in the annals of science.

Notable Events And Milestones

William Henry Bragg early education at Market Harborough Grammar School and King William’s College set the foundation for his illustrious academic career. Bragg’s scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics, marked the beginning of a series of significant achievements. His appointment as the Elder Professor of Mathematics and Experimental Physics at the University of Adelaide at the young age of 23 was a testament to his exceptional intellect and potential. Bragg’s contributions to science are monumental, particularly his pioneering work with his son, Lawrence Bragg, on the analysis of crystal structures using X-ray diffraction. This groundbreaking research earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915, making them the first father-son duo to share this prestigious award. Bragg’s law, which relates the angles of scattered X-rays to the spacing between crystal planes, remains fundamental to the field of X-ray crystallography. His work during World War I on the detection and measurement of underwater sounds was crucial for submarine detection, reflecting his ability to apply scientific principles to practical problems.

Knighted in 1920 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1931, Bragg’s accolades reflect his status as a leading scientist of his time. His presidency of the Royal Society from 1935 to 1940 further highlights his influence and leadership in the scientific community. Bragg’s contributions extended beyond the laboratory; he was an active communicator of science, utilizing the emerging medium of radio to emphasize the value of scientific inquiry and its applications to industry and society.

Bragg’s influence on culture and society can also be seen in his mentorship of notable students like Kathleen Lonsdale and William Thomas Astbury, who went on to make significant contributions to science themselves. His books, such as “The World of Sound” and “The Universe of Light,” reflect his commitment to making complex scientific concepts accessible to a broader audience. Bragg’s work laid the foundation for future scientific breakthroughs, including the unraveling of the DNA structure in the 1950s, which has had profound implications for biology and medicine. Sir William Henry Bragg’s death on March 12, 1942, marked the end of a life dedicated to the advancement of knowledge. His legacy lives on through the continued use of his scientific methods, the institutions he served, and the countless students and scientists he inspired. His contributions to our understanding of the atomic structure of materials have had a lasting impact on various fields, including physics, chemistry, biology, and materials science, shaping the modern world in countless ways.

Awards And Honors

  • Nobel Prize in Physics (1915) for the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays.
  • Knighted in 1920 for his scientific contributions.
  • Order of Merit (1931), recognizing distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture.
  • Copley Medal (1930), awarded by the Royal Society for outstanding achievements in scientific research.
  • Rumford Medal (1916), awarded by the Royal Society for outstanding contributions to the field of thermal or optical properties of matter.
  • Barnard Medal for Meritorious Service to Science (1915), presented by Columbia University.
  • Matteucci Medal (1915), awarded by the Italian Society of Sciences.
  • Faraday Medal (1936), awarded for notable scientific achievements in the field of industrial and applied chemistry.
  • John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science (1939), awarded by the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Elected President of the Royal Society (1935-1940), an honor recognizing a scientist’s contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge.
  • Honorary doctorates from sixteen universities, acknowledging his contributions to science.
  • Membership in numerous foreign academies, including those of Paris, Washington, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam, reflecting his international recognition in the scientific community.

Additional Resources


  • “Studies in Radioactivity”
  • “X-Rays and Crystal Structure”
  • “The World of Sound”
  • “Concerning the Nature of Things”
  • “Old Trades and New Knowledge”
  • “An Introduction to Crystal Analysis”
  • “The Universe of Light”

Documentaries and Archives:

  • The Royal Institution houses a unique archive of 72 films providing insights into the work of William and Lawrence Bragg.
  • “50 Years a Winner” is a BBC documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lawrence Bragg’s Nobel Prize, which he shared with his father William Henry Bragg.


  • The Royal Institution in London has exhibits related to William Henry Bragg’s work and contributions to science.