The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 9 (December 1, 1937.)
The Late Lord Rutherford of Nelson
I was much interested in reading Jas. Cowan's article on Lord Rutherford, which appeared in the June issue of the “Railways Magazine.” As I was a school mate of his in 1887–1888, I give here a few personal impressions of this great son of New Zealand, who died on 19th October. A particularly bright contingent arrived at College from Marlborough, in 1887. There were Rutherford, Ted Pasely, Billy Carter and Dapper Horton, who all excelled in one branch or other of school life.
Rutherford was a well-grown boy for his sixteen years, strongly built, with longer arms than usual which gave him an advantage in any rough and tumble. He had the complexion of a girl and ruby lips which betokened perfect health. He was not a “swot,” but for all that headed every class he was in and he took part in all school sports with success. There can be no question that his physical health had much to do with his extraordinary mental powers. The foundation of his scientific work was laid in Nelson under that Prince of schoolmasters, W. S. Littlejohn, perhaps one of the most versatile teachers who ever held a position in New Zealand. Littlejohn inculcated in all of us the spirit of enquiry and independent work. “Don't take things for granted. Try them out.” I quote an example of the results of this teaching. During a morning session Littlejohn had produced silicon dioxide by a very delicate and beautiful operation. The S1 O2 appeared as an opalescent jelly which, when dried, as it was in the midday interval, was a snow-white and an almost impalpable powder. Littlejohn exhibited this to the class by carrying round to each (only eight) for inspection. As he came to me he said: “Man—if you were to blow on it it would cover my face.” I did, and it did! and I prayed that the earth would open; for Littlejohn's red-beard, face and hair were turned snow white, and in that tragic moment he aged about 50 years. By the mercy of Providence he saw his face in a little triangle of mirror and he laughed. We all laughed together and the tension ended.
Many years afterwards Rutherford came to Wellington when the Nelson College Old Boys met him over the flowing bowl. During a conversation with half a dozen of his school mates he said something to this effect: “We shall find the secret of the universe in the atom, or that of the atom in the universe”—an indication that he was not only a wonderful and patient manipulator, but, also, what is essential in a “sailor upon unknown seas” a dreamer of dreams or, to put it better, he was possessed of vivid imagination. He fixed his gaze on a far-off and seemingly unattainable goal and directed his steps in that direction. How far he has marched towards the goal an understanding of the results of his works will show.
Some years later Rutherford was again in New Zealand and I had the privilege of meeting him at Havelock where he took off for his great flight into the empyrean. He showed us where he nearly lost his life in a boating accident in which two of his brothers perished, and where, accompanying his father, he travelled with a pack-horse from Havelock to Nelson via Maungatapu. During a general conversation at the reception in Nelson some one asked him how he did it all. “It's all very simple” was the characteristically modest reply. “If you want to cross a swamp you jump from nigger head to nigger head until you come to a full stop, retrace your steps and try again and again until you set your foot on the firm ground. You look back and say, ‘Well, that was quite easy!’”page 66