William Henry Bragg was born in Cumbria, 2nd July 1862. Following the death of his mother in 1869 he moved to Market Harborough to live with an uncle, where he attended Market Harborough Grammar School. He went on to study at King William's College, Isle of Man, 1875-1881, and Trinity College, Cambridge, (B.A. 1884, M.A. 1887). In late 1885, with no teaching or research experience, he was appointed to the joint chair of Mathematics and Experimental Physics at the University of Adelaide. Sailing via the Mediterranean, Suez and Indian Ocean, he arrived in Adelaide on the 27th February 1886. On his second day in Australia, William was introduced to the scientist Charles Todd and quickly fell in love with his third daughter, Gwendoline, whom he married in 1889.
Throughout the 1890s William was involved with an ever-increasing range of university and public activities: sport, student union, voluntarily teaching acoustics to music students, extension and public lectures, the introduction of electrical engineering, School of Mines Council, Home Reading Union, and the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, later ANZAAS) to name but a few. During his time at the University of Adelaide, William also appointed and collaborated with a number of influential people including Robert Chapman, Arthur Rogers, John Percival Vissing Madsen, Douglas Mawson, and Kerr Grant.
From 1904-1907 William began his own research, conducting a major investigation of the origins, properties and effects of alpha-particles from radioactive decay, on which he quickly became the world authority. He was assisted by his first research student, Richard Kleeman, and by guidance from Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, who had each visited Adelaide earlier. In 1907 his work on radioactivity gained him a fellowship of the Royal Society, and in 1908 he accepted an offer to become Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds.
At Leeds, William continued other research on the nature of radiation inspired by German experiments which showed that X-rays could be diffracted by a crystal, and developed a spectrometer to further his research. From mid-1913 he worked together with his son, William Lawrence Bragg, to determine the structure of diamonds and other crystals, publishing a co-authored book entitled "X-Rays and Crystal Structure". It was this invention of X-Ray Crystallography for which he was awarded, together with his son, the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915.
During the First World War, William was appointed to the Board of Invention and Research and took charge of its research to detect German submarines. In September 1915 his youngest son, Robert, was wounded and died during the 'August Offensive' at Gallipoli. This tragedy affected William deeply, and tainted any celebration of the Nobel Prize.
After the war William moved to University College London and subsequently to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where he continued his crystal research. By 1930 he had become one of the great figures of English Science, and was awarded several honours, including the Order of Merit in 1931.
Late in his life William Henry Bragg was President of the Royal Society of London, from 1935-1940. He died, aged 80, in March 1942.