Nobel prize winners, William Bragg (WHB, 1862-1942) and Lawrence Bragg (WLB, 1890-1971) remain a unique father and son combination

William and Lawrence Bragg, father and son: the most extraordinary collaboration in science 

John Jenkin 

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2008 | 458pp | ?35.00 (HB) ISBN 9780199235209 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

Among Nobel prize winners, William Bragg (WHB, 1862-1942) and Lawrence Bragg (WLB, 1890-1971) remain a unique father and son combination, awarded the physics prize jointly in 1915 when WLB was only 25. Despite chemists’ reluctance to appreciate its significance, the Braggs’ founding of x-ray crystal analysis had an immense influence on chemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy and molecular biology. WHB’s achievement is also remarkable in that he engaged in no original research until aged 42.  

WHB was born in Cumberland and educated at Trinity College Cambridge. In 1885 he accepted a chair in Adelaide, Australia, returning to England in 1909 to successive chairs at the University of Leeds and University College London. He was subsequently a distinguished head of the Royal Institution (RI) and President of the Royal Society and was still publishing papers at 80. WLB was educated in Australia and, after Cambridge and war service, also accepted an early academic chair. While his Manchester research school concentrated on silicate and metal/alloy structures, his father at the RI investigated organic structures. 

Only WLB had received a full biography by a scientist [Light is a messenger: the life and science of William Lawrence Bragg  by Graeme Hunter (Oxford University Press, 2004) (reviewed in Chemistry World, May 2005)]. Earlier, WHB’s daughter, Gwendolen Caroe, who spent only her first year in Australia, published a shorter, but balanced and sensitive, memoir of WHB [William Henry Bragg (1862-1942): Man and Scientist, Cambridge University Press, 1979]. Each author sensed unspoken tensions between two reserved characters of different generations who together shot to international fame and then pursued parallel crystallographic careers. 

In an unusual joint biography, John Jenkin, a physicist turned historian, emphasises the Braggs’ mutual respect and affection, and rejects any suggestion of coolness arising from insufficient recognition of the son’s contribution. Two-thirds of Jenkin’s book describes WHB’s English education and especially his time, 1886-1908, in newly developing South Australia, only sketched by Caroe and Hunter. Although WLB receives less coverage, Jenkin proclaims his contribution to solid-state science and refutes accusations of WLB as a scientific dinosaur or mere puzzle-solver. 

Jenkin’s exploration of Australian archives and family papers illuminates a fresh and fascinating appraisal of the Braggs’ science in a social context.