The Braggs Lecture Theatre building (at left) at the University of Adelaide.

starts William Bragg on way to winning the
1915 Nobel Prize for physics with son Lawrence


THE BRILLIANT BRAGGS –  FATHER WILLIAM AND SON (WILLIAM) LAWRENCE* – are two of Adelaide’s five Nobel Prize winners. The others are Howard Florey and Robin Warren, both for medicine, and J.M Coetzee for literature.

William Bragg arrived from England in 1885 aged 23 but his next 23 years at Adelaide University were vital to developing him as an individual, family man, sportsman, public figure, teacher and research scientist.
Adelaide enriched William Bragg's life and he gave back to the city in full.

His marriage into the Adelaide family of Gwendoline, daughter of another famous scientist and technologist Charles Todd, transformed him personally and professionally.

William Bragg’s involvement with Adelaide life accorded with his belief that universities should “act as the centre from which all education radiates”.  Adelaide’s respect for him showed in the practical support it gave to the research that would take him and his son onto the world stage of science.

Studying at Adelaide University from age 14, the Braggs’ elder son Lawrence, the keen boyhood collector of shells on Adelaide beaches, followed his father in making great leaps in scientific insights, the greatest being the Nobel-winning Bragg’s Law on using X rays to calculate the position of an atom within a crystal. X-ray crystallography is now crucial in medicine and pharmacy, physics, chemistry, mining and biological sciences.

William and Lawrence’s unique father-and-son win of the Nobel physics prize in 1915 was achieved ahead of other contenders that year, including Max Planck – formulator of quantum physics – and Albert Einstein.

The Braggs’ important Adelaide era has been detailed by John Jenkin’s major work William and Lawrence Bragg, father and son: the most extraordinary collaboration in science (2008). Crystal clear: the autobiographies of Sir Lawrence and Lady Bragg gives added personal insight.

* To lessen confusion, the Braggs are referred to as William and Lawrence in the items on this page.



MATHS GENIUS WILLIAM BRAGG LEAVES A COLD UPBRINGING in England to find immediate warmth and friendship in Adelaide

Schooldays motherless cold but marked by William's maths and love of sport, theatre

William Henry Bragg, born in 1862, was brought up on his father’s Cumberland farm in England until his mother, who taught William to read before he went to school, died in 1869. He lived in Leicestershire with his stern uncle. At the local school, William was the youngest boy in England to get through the junior Oxford local exams. Moved  to King William’s College on the Isle of Man, William excelled in maths and found enjoyment in school activities, sport and his roles in school plays.

William Bragg shines in physics at Cambridge; J.J. Thomson backs him for Adelaide Uni chair

In 1884, after gaining first class honours in mathematics, William Bragg learnt his physics in Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory. When Horace Lamb resigned from the Elder chair of mathematics at Adelaide University, J.J. Thomson (the Nobel physicist who would discover the electron in 1897) recommended that William apply for the position. Thomson headed the Cavendish Laboratory and had much in common, particularly tennis, with William. Bragg was selected for the £600 per annum University of Adelaide position at the age of 23.

William Bragg meets life friend Alfred Lendon and Samuel Way on his first day in Adelaide

William Bragg met some of the most important people in his life on the first day of his 23 years in Australia. Having sailed from Tilbury for his voyage on the RMS Rome, William arrived at Glenelg on 27 February 1886 and spent the night at the Pier Hotel. The next day, young doctor Alfred Lendon – and future life-long friend – called for William and took him to meet Samuel Way, chief justice of South Australia and university chancellor. Next stop was a visit to Charles Todd and his family.

Famous Charles Todd, wife Alice, daughters charm Bragg from first meeting on first day

Charles Todd was famous as the architect and builder of the transcontinental Overland telegraph line that linked Australia, through Darwin, with Europe. On his first day in South Australia in 1886, William Bragg met Todd, government astronomer, postmaster general and superintendent of telegraphs – and his future father in law, at the Todd home within the Adelaide Observatory buildings in the west parklands. William also met Todd's wife Alice, sons and daughters, including Gwendoline.


plus resources, solved by Professor William Bragg's good choices

Prof. William Bragg dealing, at 23, with new university and only few science students

Professor William Bragg, with first class honours from Cambridge at the age of 23, joined a new Adelaide University still struggling in 1886. Of 100 full-course students, only a few were at the science school. William taught all pure and applied maths and all the physics and practical physics. He was also in charge of much of the secondary public exams in maths and physics. But he was happy to lecture second-year music students in acoustics – a specialty he revisited in World War I.

William Bragg gives to Robert Chapman's salary; starts lectures for teachers and public

Still struggling with lack of apparatus, William Bragg asked in 1887 for an assistant lecturer. This was granted after William offered to provide one third of the salary (£100) himself for the first two years. His choice, Robert Chapman, became a powerhouse of engineering knowledge in South Australia and later Elder professor of mathematics and mechanics. William also started free lectures for science teachers and for the public. The last of these was on the “mysterious X rays”.

Arthur Rogers' skill as instrument maker a key to Bragg's experiments at Adelaide University

Arthur Rogers' superb skill in creating apparatus was critical to William Bragg’s breakthrough alpha particle and gamma ray experiments. Rogers' schooling in England was hampered by disability but he gained jobs working with metal, wood and glass. Migrating to Adelaide in the 1880s to improve his health, he joined Edwin Sawtells' optical and watchmaking business. This may have been where William had apprenticed himself to learn how to make the apparatus for the uni laboratory.

William Bragg a prime mover in building a home for university's new students' union

Part of William Bragg’s role in helping build Adelaide University’s culture, role and standards was in care for students. William was the leader in the new university’s student union getting its first home. The need for a students’ union has been traced to discontent with the small unfurnished students’ room closed by the university council in 1889 after it was damaged by angry students. William got things moving in 1895 by overseeing the planning and building of a students union building.


Joins the art society and helps develop sport of lacrosse locally

Acting role at the Barr Smiths' theatre a part of William Braggs' entree to Adelaide society

In October of his first year (1886) in Adelaide, William Bragg took the male lead in a comic drama in two acts entitled The Jacobite. It was presented in the Torrens Park Theatre, an elaborately decorated auditorium built by Robert and Joanna Barr Smith at their large home (now Scotch College) at Torrens Park near the Adelaide foothills. With much of its decoration arranged by correspondence with a London architect, the theatre had a fully equipped stage, gas lighting, antique mirrors, oval windows and a glass-roofed conservatory. It seated 200. (The theatre has been restored by Scotch College that now occupies the property.) Robert and Joanna Barr Smith were lavish hosts, and the theatre, indulging the family’s own interest in theatricals, hosted many entertainments. William Bragg's participation in 1886 in at least one of those entertainments recalls his boyhood love of theatricals at King William College in England and it indicates his acceptance into the wealthiest level of Adelaide social strata. It was also significant in Bragg's rise to scientific eminence. Seventeen years later, Robert Barr Smith gave money for Bragg to buy his first sample of radium bromide and begin his extraordinary research. In 1906, Barr Smith gave more funds for Bragg to buy a machine to liquefy gases.

William Bragg marries Gwendoline Todd who has a positive effect on his emotion swings

William Bragg and Gwendoline Todd became close friends from their first meeting on his first day in Adelaide. Their relationship wasn't always smooth as William became concerned about his mood swings. With a maturity beyond her 18 years, Gwen comforted and calmed “my dearest Will”. In 1889, William and Gwen were married by university vice chancellor Canon George Farr at his parish church, St Luke’s, Whitmore Square. They rented a home on LeFevre Terrace, North Adelaide.

William Bragg takes up painting with Gwen and joins board of library, museum and art gallery

Seaside summer holidays became a family tradition was for the Braggs and Todds. Gwen Bragg and the two boys usually went for an extended time. William joined Gwen by taking up in painting and they even exhibited their work together. They were an integral part of the reactivated South Australian Society of Arts. and they exhibited together. William represented the society on the board of governors of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia.


Lacrosse boosted in South Australia by William Bragg as a star player and organiser

Keen on sports from his school and university days, William Bragg helped developed lacrosse in South Australia. William became the colony’s finest all-round player with the Adelaide club whose home ground was the Old Adelaide (Victoria Park) Racecourse opposite the grandstand, in 1886. He organised and became captain of a North Adelaide club and was picked in in a combined South Australian team that inflicted the only defeat on the South Melbourne club on  Adelaide Oval in 1887. 


through Jubilee exhibition (1887) and School of Mines/Industries

William Bragg involved with Jubilee exhibition and acoustics for Elder Conservatorium, Hall

William Bragg was closely involved with the jubilee exhibition, the Exhibition Building and the Elder Conservatorium of Music. The jubilee exhibition, celebrating the South Australia’s 50th anniversary and the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, opened in 1887 in the new Exhibition Building on North Terrace. As a member of Adelaide University’s board of musical studies, Bragg was active planning the Elder Conservatorium and advised on the acoustics for it and the Elder Hall.



Royal Society of South Australia represented by William Bragg at first AAAS meeting in 1888

William Bragg was nominated to represent the Royal Society of South Australia at the first Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) council meeting in 1888. William was optimistic about the AAAS offering young scientists a chance to have contact with more experienced colleagues. William's 1904 AAAS presidential address in Dunedin, “On some recent advances in the theory of the ionization of gases”, marked the start of his own intensive research career. 

William Bragg the link between Adelaide University and School of Mines and Industries

William Bragg showed  tact and breadth of vision by being, uniquely, a member of the councils of both Adelaide University and the School of Mines and Industries that had an, at times, acrimonious rivalry. William believed in a broad general education for the whole community but equally in the intellectual primacy of the university. He agreed to School of Mines' requests for engineering courses, with valuable input from Robert Chapman, although resources at the university were very low.


John Madsen works with William Bragg in major boost to electrical technology in Adelaide

As with his father-in-law Charles Todd, Adelaide University's mathematics and physics professor and future Nobel Prize winner William Bragg promoted electrical technology in Adelaide. Todd, as South Australia's postmaster general and director of the Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line project, had urged that Adelaide use electricity long before it was seriously discussed in the 1880s. In 1900, the new School of Mines and Industries asked Adelaide University to help reorganise its electrical engineering course. William Bragg had a shortage of staff, funds and equipment but he suggested weekly evening classes that began in 1891. Students petitioned for an advanced course in 1894. A brilliant undergraduate from Sydney University, John Madsen arrived at Adelaide University in 1901 as assistant lecturer in mathematics and demonstrator in physics. During the 1902/3 summer break, Madsen visited universities and electrical works in England and the USA. In 1903, he became Adelaide University’s lecturer in electrical engineering. The university and School of Mines in 1902 set up four-year courses leading to a joint school fellowship and university diploma in applied science. The electrical engineering course and laboratories design were left to Madsen, who took on all physics practical work, advised Adelaide Electric Lighting Co. and, by 1906, was helping Bragg with research. Bragg took a deep interest in these developments. With Todd's support, Bragg was elected an associate (1893) and then full member of The Institution of Electrical Engineers (UK) until 1912.


usher in William Bragg's intense radioactivity research phase

William Bragg's X ray demonstration in 1896 the result of Adelaide technological teamwork

William Bragg’s demonstration of X rays in Adelaide in 1896 had special significance. It was part of William’s interest shifting to electromagnetism and he was also use a confluence of local resources. A high-voltage induction coil was borrowed from his famous father in law Charles Todd, postmaster general superintendent of electric telegraph. At the same time, Samuel Barbour, an R.H. Faulding & Co. chemist, returned from Europe with one of the new glass discharge (Crookes) tubes.  

William Bragg and his family go to England for a year with university giving first study leave

Adelaide University was the first in Australia to grant study leave of absence and William Bragg applied for a year in England in 1898. The university and the South Australian government asked him to investigate possibilities for training science teachers and technical education. In England, William, on behalf of his father-in-law Charles Todd, discussed the cost of wireless equipment. Contemplating his own research work, Bragg discussed physics with friends at Cambridge University.

Radio signals sent from Todd's observatory to Henley Beach in 1899 among Australia's first

William Bragg was involved in sending one of Australia’s first radio signals in Adelaide in 1899. These were Morse code messages, includied one from the Charles Todd’s observatory wireless hut on West Terrace, Adelaide, to the Bragg family’s hut at Henley Beach. William and had been diverted into the possibilities of radio or “wireless telegraphy” by his father in law Charles Todd, While on study leave in England in 1898, Bragg met with Guglielmo Marconi and discussed his experiments.

Richard Kleeman among young graduates aiding William Bragg in his crucial research phase

Richard Kleeman was among graduates whom William Bragg employed. Kleeman, eldest of nine children of German-Lutheran ancestry at Rowlands Flat, left school at 13 and was apprenticed to a cooper at Yalumba winery and then Chateau Tanunda until 1901. He read mathematics and physics privately, helped by his pastor. In 1897, he sent short papers that impressed William Bragg. In 1901-03, Kleeman obtained first-class honours in physics and helped Bragg in studies of radioactivity.


alpha particles, X/gamma rays; Royal Society fellowship in 1907

Robert Barr Smith buys the radium bromide for Bragg's research into ions and alpha particles

William Bragg started his research into alpha particles and what became known as the “Bragg ionisation peak” from 1904 was again helped by local resources. William ordered radium bromide that was paid for by Adelaide philanthropist Robert Barr Smith. Adelaide University skilled instrument maker Arthur Rogers built brass chambers of increasing complexity for detecting the alpha particles. William also had the help of his first research student Richard Kleeman from Rowland Flat.

William Bragg centre of controversy over X rays, gamma rays as particles or waves

During research (1904-08) at Adelaide University with alpha particles, William was conscious of vigorous discussions in science worldwide on the nature of X rays and gamma rays as waves or particles. The prevailing view than was the ether-pulse theory that saw X rays as electromagnetic wave pulses. But William revived the idea that X rays and gamma rays might be material particles. William invited Adelaide University colleague John Madsen to help investigate his radical theory.

Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy become key figures in William Bragg's global links

Visits by Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy to William Bragg, while he was at Adelaide University, were crucial to the progress of Bragg’s research and reputation. Rutherford and Soddy were key world figures in nuclear physics on its way to unveiling the structure of the atom. William was conscious of isolation from people and events in England and Europe but his correspondence with Soddy and Rutherford were a bridge enabling him to proceed with his research in Adelaide.

Royal Society fellowship and offer from Canadian university received by William Bragg in 1907

William Bragg was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1907. This was second for the broader family. His father in law Charles Todd had been elected a fellow in 1889. Also in 1907, Ernest Rutherford recommeded William as his successor at McGill University in Canada. William, who was initially very interested, but told Rutherford that “we have struck our roots very deep  … I think there could hardly be a more delightful city to live in than Adelaide, nor a kindlier people”.


bullying, precocity; wonder in grandfather's backyard; and shells

Lawrence Bragg grows up in North Adelaide and his grandfather Todd's observatory

Lawrence Bragg recalled happy times at his first boyhood home in North Adelaide with playmate and “great crony” Eric Gill, son of H. P. Gill, master of the School of Design and honorary curator of the art gallery. For Lawrence and brother Bob, Sunday was traditionally spent with grandparents, Alice and Charles Todd, at the Adelaide Observatory on West Terrace. Around their rambling two-storey house was a cluster of buildings housing the telescopes and meteorological equipment.  

Lawrence Bragg's elbow injury his first venture with father on the use of X rays that led to Nobel

X rays, central to William and Lawrence Braggs’ Nobel Prize in 1915, featured in a domestic drama at the family’s North Adelaide home in 1896. Six-year-old Lawrence Bragg was riding his tricycle when brother Bob jumped on from behind. They both fell on Lawrence’s left elbow. Lawrence was taken to his father William’s Adelaide University laboratory where the elbow was Xrayed with basic apparatus. X rays had only been discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen in Germany.

Lawrence Bragg shows brilliance over bullying at Queen's School in North Adelaide 1889-90

In the mid 1890s, Lawrence Bragg started at a convent school on the far side of North Adelaide. On the family’s return from England in 1899, Lawrence went to Queen’s School, a private institution run by R. G. Jacomb-Hood in North Adelaide. Lawrence recalled Hood’s belief in corporal punishment, some bullying from older boys, and not fitting in at the school. He was reluctant to play lunch-time hockey but very precocious in Euclidean mathematics and other studies. 

Lawrence Bragg, keen shell collector on Adelaide beaches, finds cuttlefish sepia braggi

Shell collecting became Lawrence Bragg’s main boyhood interest, helped by the family’s seaside holidays at Port Willunga, Port Elliott, Semaphore, Brighton, Normanville, Aldinga and Grange. The shell collecting also suited Lawrence’s preference for solitary pursuits. Lawrence’s shell collecting grew to specimens from 500 species. In 1906/07, Lawrence Bragg found an unusual cuttlefish bone that Dr Joseph Verco, who had the city's finest collection of shells, named sepia braggi.


WILLIAM BRAGG DESIGNS FAMILY'S HOME ON EAST TERRACE; organises royal visit; helps plan Adelaide Golf Club's Seaton links

Bragg family moves to Catherwood House, designed by William, on East Terrace, Adelaide

After the Braggs returned to Adelaide from England in 1899, William Bragg designed a family home for land he bought on the corner of Carrington Street and East Terrace, Adelaide. Charles Todd laid the foundation stone in 1899 and named it Catherwood House after William’s boyhood home in Market Harborough. William developed his love of gardening here and a backyard shed was used by the boys Lawrence and Bob as a workshop. The house is now a state heritage item.

William Bragg guides 1901 royal visit to university and opening of organ for Elder Hall

Another aspect of William Bragg’s organising skills was called on for the 1901 visit to Adelaide of the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York. William used his special relationship with students to negotiate good behaviour and their songs became a highlight of the program. The duchess opened the Elder Hall organ, which worked well, thanks to William’s input. The military review on Saturday at Victoria Park was in front of the Braggs’ new family home at East Terrace, Adelaide.

William Bragg helps tee up Adelaide Golf Club's move to its new course at Seaton in 1906

William Bragg was at the forefront of (Royal) Adelaide Golf Club’s effort to establish itself at Seaton from 1906. William joined the club in 1893 when its course was in the east city parklands opposite the Braggs’ first home at North Adelaide. He was elected the club’s secretary/treasurer and reduced his golf handicap from 13 to 1.William was involved in the club's efforts to find a new course in 1904 at Seaton. William provided a club trophy in 1905 and in 1906/7 he won the senior medal.


Big farewell for Braggs after William accepts Leeds University post and leaves in 1909

Adelaide gave the Braggs a big sendoff after William Bragg wrote to the Adelaide University Council, in 1908, tendering his resignation after an attractive offer from Leeds University. But he suggested 10 months leave of absence and the chance to return. Australasian scientists were sad to see him go. Clinton Coleridge Farr wrote: “He is as unassuming as he is brilliant ... More than any other man, has helped to shift the centre of gravity of scientific research a little to the south.”


switches to physics at Cambridge and devises Bragg's Law at 22

Lawrence Bragg a top student at St Peter's College but out of step with older classmates

Lawrence Bragg started at St Peter's College in 1901, benefitting from changes since 1894 when the Rev. Henry Girdlestone, an Oxford science graduate, took over as headmaster. Age 11, Lawrence Bragg was in the fifth form and doing a public examination at the end of his first year. Precocious in lessons, he found his social immaturity compared to older class mates a great handicap. In 1904, he topped mathematics, chemistry and French exams, as well as Form VI overall. 

First-class honours for Lawrence Bragg after entering Adelaide University at age of 15

Lawrence Bragg completed his secondary education in 1905 – at the age of 15. Lawrence enrolled at Adelaide University in 1906. He studied Physics 1, Inorganic Chemistry 1 (BA course), and second-year pure mathematics, getting a first-class pass in each. Much of his mathematics and physics tutoring came from his father. In 1908, Lawrence undertook the honours mathematics course and graduated BA with first-class honours. He left for England with his family in 1909. 


William Bragg urges Lawrence to make switch to physics at Cambridge University

Lawrence Bragg entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1909 on a major scholarship in mathematics. He completed the first-year mathematical tripos with a first-class pass. William urged his son to change to physics and Lawrence achieved a first-class natural science honour. Lawrence began research in Cavendish Laboratory in 1912 when he became aware of Max von Laue proving X rays were waves of light. This sparked the joint interest of Lawrence and father William in X-ray diffraction.

Lawrence's Bragg's Law for calculating atom position crux of Nobel Prize win with William

As a 22-year-old first-year research student at Cambridge University in 1912, Lawrence Bragg discovered how to “see” the positions of atoms in solids. This was Braggs Law, basis of the 1915 Nobel Prize shared by Lawrence – youngest winner of the prize for science – with father William. William built a spectrometer, enabling the two Braggs to examine X rays from crystals at various angles. This initiated X-ray crystallography – still the most accurate to determine molecular structures.


William and Lawrence go on achieving and popularising science

Death of younger son Bob at Gallipoli clouds the Braggs' Nobel Prize science honour in 1915

At the outbreak of War World I, Lawrence Bragg and brother Bob joined the King Edward’s Horse, a mounted infantry unit for men from British dominions. Lawrence was assigned to the Leicestershire Royal Horse Artillery for training in Norfolk. Bob joined the 58th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. In September 1915, Bob died in a dugout at Gallipoli. In November, William Bragg got a telegram from Sweden notifying him of the joint award with Lawrence of the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics.

William Bragg furthers X-ray crystallography and popularises science via the Royal Institution

William Bragg was appointed to the Quain chair of physics at University College, London, in 1915. Here, and on becoming Fullerian professor of chemistry and director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1923, he built up vigorous schools of X-ray crystallography, principally studying organic molecules. At the Royal Institution, he started a tradition of popularizing science with Christmas lectures for young people. His wife Gwendoline died in 1929 followed by William in 1942


Lawrence Bragg wins medal for war work; X rays help unveil DNA at Cavendish Laboratory

Already, at 25, the youngest Nobel laureate, Lawrence Bragg received the Military Cross for work in World War I. In 1919, he became professor of physics at Victoria University, Manchester, fostering X-ray crystallography devoted mainly to studying inorganic structures. After serving again in World War II, Lawrence started applying X rays to proteins and helped create a Cavendish Laboratory research group, including Francis Crick and James Watson, who identified DNA’s double helix.


The Braggs remembered in Adelaide through RiAus and university research centres

The opening of the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), in the former Adelaide stock exchange (now Science Exchange) building in 2009 started with the Bragg Initiative.William and Lawrence became directors of the Royal Institution of Great Britain later in their careers in England.The Royal Institution aims to “bring science to people and people to science". Adelaide University honours the Braggs’ work with the Braggs’ Building, Bragg Laboratories and the Bragg crystallography centre.

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