Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (October 6, 1903 – June 25, 1995) was an Irish physicist, the winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize for Physics along with Sir John Douglas Cockcroft, the only Irishman to win a Nobel Prize for any science.

Walton was born in Dungarvan, County Waterford to a Methodist minister father, Rev John Walton (1874 - 1936) and Anna Sinton (1874 - 1906).


A clergymans family moved every three years in those days and Ernest lived in Rathkeale and Castleblayney for periods as a small child. He attended day schools in Banbridge, County Down and Cookstown, County Tyrone before becoming a boarder at Methodist College Belfast in 1915 where he excelled in science and mathematics.

Walton won a Trinity College sizarship and a County Armagh scholarship and proceeded to Trinity College to study both mathematics and science. A student contemporary of his was Albert J. McConnell who became Provost in 1952. Walton graduated in 1926 having won 7 accolades for his academic achievements from 1924. He pursued an M Sc by research and earned this in 1927.

  • Michael Roberts Prize (1924)
  • Townsend Memorial Prize (1924)
  • Large Gold Medal in Experimental Science (1926)
  • Mathematics (Gold Medal) (1926)
  • Brooke Prize (1926)
  • FitzGerald Medal (1926)
  • McCullagh Prize (1927)

He was then accepted as a research student at Trinity College, Cambridge under the supervision of Sir Ernest Rutherford, Director of Cavendish Laboratory. There were four Nobel prize winners on the staff and a further five to ererge, including Walton and John Cockcroft. He earned his PhD in 1931. Rutherford a partnership between Walton and Cockroft whose joint efforts resulted in a new theory of wave mechanics leading to a new era of accelerator-based experimental nuclear physics details of which were announced in Nature on February 13, 1932. They had split the nucleus of the atom by artificial means.

Career at Trinity College

He became a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, on his return to Ireland in 1934, and was appointed the eighteenth Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy in 1946. Walton lecturing competency was considered outstanding. He had the ability to present complicated matters in simple and easy-to-understand terms. His research interests were conducted with very limited resources until the 1970's. He identified, in the late 1950's physics research priorities - , phosphorescent effect in glasses, secondary electron emmission from surfaces under positive ion bombardment, radiocarbon dating and low level counting and disposition of thin films on glass and a study of their properties.

In 1960 he was elected Senior Fellow.


Ernest Walton married Freda Wilson on August 23, 1934. They had five children, Dr Alan Walton, Mrs Marian Woods, Professor Philip Walton (Professor of Applied Physics, National University of Ireland, Galway), Mrs Jean Clarke and Winifred Walton (decd 1936).

Nobel Prize in Physics

He and John Cockcroft were announced on November 16, 1951 Nobel Prize for work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles (popularly known as splitting the atom) carried out in the Cavendish Laboratory in the University of Cambridge.The award was the first and, to date, only Nobel prize for science awarded to an Irish person; there have been four Nobel prizes in Literature awarded to Irish people.

Other awards

  • Hughes Medal by the Royal Society of London (1938)
  • Membership of Royal Irish Academy (1935)
  • Queens University, Belfast, honorary degree (1959)
  • University of Ulster, honorary degree (1988)
  • Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota, honorary degree (1975)
  • Dublin City University, honorary degree (1991)
  • Dickenson College, Glover Gold Medal (1964)
  • Commonwealth of Kentucky, commissioned as Kentucky Colonel (1975)
  • Royal Dublin Society, honorary member for life (1981)
  • Institution of Engineers of Ireland, honorary Fellowship(1985)
  • Institute of Physics, honorary Fellowship(1987)
  • The Walton Prize in Physics is awarded to the most meritiorious performance in physics by a junior freshman.

Later years

Professor Walton retired in 1974 at the age of 71 but maintained a relationship with Trinity for many years. He was widely respected and much admired but regarded as a modest, unassuming man.

In 2002 the Waterford Institute of Technology dedicated their new ICT building the ETS Walton Building. Other honours include the naming of Walton Causeway, Dungarvan, the Watson Building at Methodist College, Belfast

Further reading

  • Cathcart, Brian, The Fly in the Cathedral, Penguin, 2005. ISBN 0-14-027906-7
  • McBrierty, Vincent J., Walton, The Irish Scientist, Trinity College Dublin Press, 2003. ISBN 1-871408-22-9


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