Ernest O. Lawrence Biography

Educator, Physicist, Scientist, Inventor(1901–1958)
Ernest O. Lawrence was a nuclear physicist known for his work on the Manhattan Project and for the invention of the cyclotron, for which he won the Nobel Prize.


Ernest O. Lawrence was born in Canton, South Dakota, on August 8, 1901. He earned a doctorate in physics and joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1928. Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1936 for his invention of the cyclotron and contributed to the Manhattan Project during World War II. He died in Palo Alto, California, on August 27, 1958.

Early Life and Academic Career

Ernest Orlando Lawrence was born on August 8, 1901, in Canton, South Dakota. His parents, Carl and Gunda Lawrence, were the children of Norwegian immigrants. Carl Lawrence worked as the superintendent of schools in Canton.

Lawrence received his education locally, attending Canton High School, St. Olaf College and the University of South Dakota. He studied chemistry and physics in graduate programs at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago and Yale University. Lawrence pursued an academic path after completing his doctorate. In 1930, he became the youngest full professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He would remain at Berkeley for the remainder of his career, during which he founded two major research centers: the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Nuclear Research

The majority of Lawrence's research focused on nuclear physics. In his early career, Lawrence studied ionization phenomena. In 1929, he invented the cyclotron, a device for accelerating nuclear particles to high velocities in order to disintegrate atoms and form new elements. He conducted his research in collaboration with his brother, Dr. John Lawrence, who served as director of Berkeley's Medical Physics Laboratory. This collaboration facilitated the exploration of the medical and biological applications of the cyclotron.

Lawrence made significant contributions to nuclear research during World War II. His work on uranium-isotope separation advanced the Manhattan Project. After the war, he served as a member of the United States delegation to the Geneva Conference, seeking an international agreement on the suspension of nuclear weapons testing. He personally promoted research on the hydrogen bomb and lobbied for increased weapons-research funding within the United States.

In addition to his academic appointments and publications, Lawrence received a number of honors in recognition of his achievements. Among these are the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Comstock Prize of the National Academy of Sciences, the Faraday Medal and the Enrico Fermi Award. Lawrence received honorary doctorates from more than 10 American universities as well as the University of Glasgow. In 1939, Lawrence was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of the cyclotron. In 1961, scientists named the chemical element lawrencium in honor of Lawrence.

Personal Life

In 1932, Lawrence married Mary Kimberly Blumer, whose father was the dean of the Yale Medical School. They had six children. Lawrence named one of his sons, Robert, after friend and fellow physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Lawrence suffered a serious intestinal inflammation in the summer of 1958. Surgery revealed additional health problems, some of which probably contributed to his death shortly thereafter. Ernest Lawrence died on August 27, 1958, in Palo Alto, California.

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