Chadwick was born in Bollington, Cheshire to John Joseph Chadwick and Anne Mary Knowles. He went to Bollington Cross C of E Primary School, attended Manchester High School, and studied at the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge.

In 1913 Chadwick went and worked with Hans Geiger at the Technical University of Berlin. He also worked with Ernest Rutherford. He was in Germany at the start of World War I and would be interned in Ruhleben P.O.W. Camp just outside Berlin. During his internship he had the freedom to set up a laboratory in the stables. With the help of Charles Ellis he worked on the ionization of phosphorus and also on the photo-chemical reaction of carbon monoxide and magnesium. He spent most of the war years in Ruhleben until Geiger's laboratory interceded for his release

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