Charles Barkla won the 1917 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing that X-rays emitted by any substance are related solely to the chemical elements present in the substance. This means the emitted X-rays act as a form of fingerprinting to identify which elements are present in any material.
Personal and Career Details
Charles Glover Barkla was born to middle class parents in Widnes, England, UK. His father was John Martin Barkla, a manager with the Atlas Chemical Company. His mother was Sarah Glover, the daughter of a watchmaker.
Barkla was educated at a grammar school, Liverpool Institute High School, from which he won a scholarship to Liverpool University, about 10 miles from home. He studied Mathematics and Physics, graduating with a first class honors degree in Physics in 1898, followed by a Master’s degree in Physics in 1899.
In 1899, age 22, he began postgraduate work at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory studying electromagnetic waves. His supervisor was J. J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron. In 1902, Barkla began his Nobel Prize winning work at the Cavendish Laboratory. He completed it at Liverpool University, where he moved in 1903.
Barkla was awarded a Bachelor of Arts research degree by Cambridge in 1903, and a DSc by Liverpool in 1904.
In 1909, with the widespread recognition of his X-ray work’s importance, Barkla was appointed Wheatstone Professor of Physics at the University of London. In 1913, age 36, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He remained in this position until his death.
Barkla was a committed Christian – a Methodist. He regarded his scientific work as part of his personal quest for God. He had an excellent bass singing voice and sang in the chapel choir at King’s College, Cambridge.
Barkla married Mary Esther Cowell in 1907. They had a daughter and two sons.
Charles Glover Barkla died, aged 67, at home in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK on October 23, 1944. His youngest son, Flight Lieutenant Michael Barkla had been killed the previous year in an accident in North Africa, where he was working as a surgeon during World War 2.
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Arthur Holly Compton
Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative
Oxford University Press, 1956
Barkla, Charles Glover (1877–1944)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, September 2004