Antoine Henri Becquerel

Last revised by Daniel J Bell on 10 Jan 2021

Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) was a French scientist renowned for his work and subsequent discovery of radioactivity for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903.

Antoine Henri Becquerel was born on 15 December 1852 in Paris, France to a family of nobility and active scientific history. He received his scientific education at the Ecole Polytechnique completing it in 1874.

Becquerel's initial research explored natural phosphorescence of materials exposed to visible light. He would wrap a photodetector in black paper and phosphorescent materials in an attempt to create a pattern (figure 2), proposing that these materials would emit x-ray-like radiation when they are exposed to sunlight. Becquerel conducted these experiments in both full sun days and cloudy days, expecting a difference in pattern; however, he found the patterns on the photodetector to be similar. 

Upon further experimentation, involving uranium salts, Becquerel concluded that these materials were emitting energy without any extrinsic excitation based on the lack of variability in the photodetector pattern relative to the experimental conditions (light, no light).

This serendipitous discovery saw Becquerel work alongside Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie for many years into the theory of radioactivity, eventually sharing a Nobel Prize for Physics with them for his work on radioactivity.

Antoine was first married in 1874 to Lucie Zoé Marie Jamin, whom passed away after giving birth to his first son, Jean Becquerel. He later married again to Louise Désirée Lorieux in 1890. 

By 1895 he sat as the Chairman of Physics at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, a title previously held by his father 1.

Antoine Henri Becquerel died on 25 August 1908 in Le Croisic, Brittany, France.

  • Rumford medal (1900)
  • Nobel Prize for Physics (1903)
  • Barnard medal (1905)
  • discovered radioactivity
  • the SI unit for radioactivity, the becquerel, was named in his honor.

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Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: Antoine Henri Becquerel c.1905
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  • Figure 2: photographic plate made by Becquerel showing effects of exposure to radioactivity
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