Henri Becquerel Biography

Scientist, Physicist, Academic (1852–1908)
Henri Becquerel was a French physicist best known for his work on radioactivity, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1903.


Henri Becquerel was born in Paris, France, on December 15, 1852. Born into a family of scientists, Becquerel followed his father into the academic field of physics. In 1896, he discovered radioactivity, which was to be the focus of his work thereafter. Becquerel won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, sharing the prize with Marie and Pierre Curie. He died in Brittany, France, on August 25, 1908.

Early Life and Career

Antoine Henri Becquerel was born in Paris, France, on December 15, 1852. He was born into a family of scholars and scientists. His father, Alexander Edmond Becquerel, was an expert on solar radiation and phosphorescence. His grandfather, Antoine César, had invented an electrolytic method for extracting metals from their ores. Becquerel followed in the footsteps of his forebears, chemistry and physics through his university years at the École Polytechnic.

Becquerel joined the government department of Ponts-et-Chaussées in 1874, quickly rising through the ranks. He maintained an appointment at the Museum of Natural History. Becquerel ultimately decided to pursue this academic path. He returned to school, earning a doctorate in 1888. In 1892, he was appointed Professor of Applied Physics in the Department of Natural History at the Paris Museum. Three years later, he began teaching at his alma mater, the École Polytechnic.

Scientific Work

Becquerel's early work focused on the polarization of light phosphorescence and terrestrial magnetism. In 1896, he made his greatest discovery: radioactivity. Following a discussion with Henri Poincaré on the recent discovery of X-rays, Becquerel devised an experiment that proved the existence of this naturally occurring force. Although his initial experiments were not successful he came upon evidence of natural radioactivity nearly by accident, when an unexpected reaction occurred in one of his laboratory drawers. Becquerel was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, sharing the honor with Pierre and Marie Curie.

Later Life and Honors

Becquerel was an esteemed member of the European scientific community. He was elected a member of the Academie des Sciences de France in 1889, serving as Life Secretary of the organization. He also belonged to the Accademia dei Lincei and the Royal Academy of Berlin, amongst other scholarly societies. He was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1900.

Antoine Henri Becquerel died in Le Croisic, Brittany, France, on August 25, 1908. His work with radioactive materials, leaving him burned and scarred, may have contributed to his death.

Personal Life

Becquerel married twice. He married Lucie Zoé Marie Jamin in 1874. She died shortly after giving birth to their son, Jean, in 1878. Jean would go on to become a physicist, carrying on the family tradition. In 1890, Becquerel married Louise Désirée Lorieux.

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