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10 Remarkable Oxford Lecturers of the Past and the Present

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One of the best things about studying at Oxford is the opportunity to be taught by some of the world’s leading experts in your field.

Throughout history, some of the world’s finest minds have taught at Oxford, in the context of lectures and the small-group tutorials for which Oxford is particularly famous. And that tradition continues as Oxford still attracts the world’s greatest thinkers and scholars today. In this article, we take a look at some of the most notable Oxford lecturers of the past – and those you might be taught by if you study there today.

Lecturers of the past

Some of Oxford’s best-known lecturers of the past are writers such as Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who we’ve previously discussed in our article on Oxford’s most famous and notable writers. So in this article, we’ve left them aside, and looked at five more remarkable Oxford lecturers of the past – some of whom you might have heard of, and some of whom you might never have come across before.

1. Thomas Willis (1621-1675)

Image shows Merton St.
Willis lived on Merton St in the heart of Oxford.

Known as the “father of neurology”, Thomas Willis was a founding member of the Royal Society who contributed significant understanding across multiple different areas of medicine. He had perhaps just six months of formal medical training, his studies having been interrupted by the Civil War, where he fought on the Royalist side, but it has been argued that this was to his benefit as a doctor, as it meant he wasn’t limited by the conventional wisdom and prejudices of the time. A graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, he remained in the city after graduation.

Like many educated men of his era, he seems to have been involved in a remarkable number of different activities in his lifetime: he practised medicine at the highest levels as a royal physician, and at the lowest by attending the market at Abingdon, near Oxford; he hosted a church congregation at his lodgings; he was a pioneer in neurological research and published several important works; he was involved in several circles of experimentalists and academics, including the Royal Society; and he was appointed Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy in 1670, the oldest of Oxford’s scientific chairs. He was only the fourth person to hold the position.

2. Ida Mann (1893-1983)

Image shows students in the laboratory at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1899.
Mann studied at the London School of Medicine for Women.

A pioneer in ophthalmology and embryology, Ida Mann’s career was a battle against considerable opposition. Her desire to become a doctor was opposed by her father, and she was one of just a handful of women to pass the exams to study Medicine in 1914, at a time when only one medical school admitted women at all.

Yet despite these early obstacles, she progressed rapidly in her career and in 1941 became Margaret Ogilvy Reader in Ophthalmology at Oxford, managing a staggering workload of research, teaching, public and private medical practice, and chemical defence research for the treatment of war wounds. Her time at Oxford was hugely productive, including restructuring the Oxford Eye Hospital in order to cope with a tenfold increase in patients as a result of the Second World War, building the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, and resuming the teaching of postgraduate diploma courses. In 1944, she was granted a personal chair, making her the first female professor at Oxford. But this did not last long. Opposed to political changes in medicine and university decisions about the teaching of ophthalmology, she resigned in 1947, and moved to Australia in 1949, where she continued to practise medicine and carry out research, remaining professionally active nearly until her death.

3. Isaiah Berlin (1907-1997)

Image shows Wolfson College, Oxford.
Berlin helped to found Wolfson College, Oxford.

Born in Latvia, Isaiah Berlin moved with his family to the UK in 1921, and studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He was to spend his entire career in academia at Oxford, with the sole exception of his time spent in the British Diplomat Service during the Second World War. A philosopher, political theorist and historian of ideas, he is particularly known for developing the distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty. For example, in terms of the right to vote, a government prioritising positive liberty might make polling day a bank holiday, so that people are enabled to vote by not having to work. A government prioritising negative liberty would look at expanding the franchise; i.e. not prohibiting certain groups from voting.

But this is just one small – albeit influential – part of a vast body of work. Of particular benefit to his students was the fact that Berlin preferred to speak and lecture rather than write, and was known for his willingness to discuss ideas with anyone: students, scholars and strangers alike.

4. Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)

Image shows St Anne's College.
Murdoch was a fellow at St Anne’s College.

Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch studied first at Somerville College, Oxford, then Newnham College, Cambridge, before becoming a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. In remembering her life, critics and biographers have struggled to know whether to give her philosophy or her prodigious output of 26 novels – including the Booker prize-winning The Sea, the Sea – greater weight.

In terms of her fiction, she writes complex, dark characters with inextricably interwoven lives and a focus on morality. This is also reflected in her philosophy, in which she believed that acting well was a natural consequence of perceiving things as they truly are, rather than being misled by prejudice or ego. She argued that the key to perceiving things in this light of accuracy that leads to the right moral path is love. And while she claimed that her novels were not philosophical, the power and influence of love is also a key themed she explored in them.

5. Mary Warnock (1924-)

Image shows an egg being fertilised through IVF.
Warnock helped shape the law on fertility treatments.

Philosopher Mary Warnock – now Baroness Warnock – held teaching and research roles at several different colleges at the University of Oxford from 1949 to 1991, ending her career there as Mistress of Girton College. However, she is better known for her work chairing two public enquiries.

The first, completed in 1978, was on the treatment of children with special educational needs: she changed the field significantly by encouraging the teaching of children with special needs in mainstream schools, with such children gaining a “statement” to represent their entitlement to extra support. While the system has since been criticised, not least by Warnock herself, at the time it represented considerable progress and the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream education has contributed to their increased academic performance and social inclusion. The second, completed in 1984, sought and found consensus on the challenging topic of regulating fertility treatments and the use of human embryos in scientific research. In 1985, in recognition of this and other policy work, Warnock was made a life peer, and sat in the House of Lords until her retirement in 2015.

Lecturers of the present

Are you planning on studying at the University of Oxford soon? Here are some of the remarkable people you might have the opportunity to be taught by. And if you join us at our Oxford summer school, who knows – you might even seen them around.

1. Tim Berners-Lee

Image shows Tim Berners-Lee.
Berners-Lee’s influence has been huge, but he’s known for his modesty.

It’s arguable that Tim Berners-Lee shaped the modern world more than any other individual alive today. Working at CERN in the late 1980s, he created the World Wide Web – using the internet as a means of sharing information between researchers. Most of the components that Berners-Lee used already existed; it was his flash of inspiration that put them together to create a system that connects billions of people today. But what made all the difference was Berners-Lee’s determination that this should be a free technology, available to anyone, without patent or royalties. He has since continued to campaign to keep the internet open and free to use for everyone.

It was at Oxford that Berners-Lee read Physics more than forty years ago. He has now joined the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science as a professor and member of Christ Church, where his focus is on research.  

2. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Image shows Bell Burnell speaking on a stage, the audience in shadow.
Bell Burnell has been showered with prizes after being looked over for the Nobel Prize.

Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is known for co-discovering the first radio pulsars in 1967, while only a postgraduate student. A pulsar is a neutron star that emits electromagnetic radiation that can only be detected when it is pointing directly at Earth. The detection therefore “pulses” as the star rotates. Because these pulses are very regular, they are useful tools for observation by astrophysicists. Bell Burnell has worked at several different universities, having taken her BSc at the University of Glasgow and her PhD at the University of Cambridge; she is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

She famously did not receive the Nobel Prize for her pulsar discovery, but has been given multiple other prizes and honours since, including most recently the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. For this she was awarded prize money of £2.3 million, which she donated to support students underrepresented in Physics. She believes that increasing diversity in Physics could not only be beneficial for the students supported, but also for the field as a whole in catalysing new ways of thinking and as a consequence, new discoveries – a pattern that she has seen in her own life and work.

3. Kay Davies

Image shows muscle tissue affected by muscular dystrophy.
Davies has made significant strides in treating muscular dystrophy.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is the most common kind of muscular dystrophy, affecting one in 5,000 men; as a genetic condition linked to the X chromosome, it rarely affects women. Average life expectancy for people with DMD is just 26. It is this condition, and other neuromuscular and neurological disorders, that Kay Davies is dedicating to researching and combatting. In the 1980s, she developed a test that allows foetuses to be screened for the genetic mutation that causes DMD, and she continues to work on finding targets for possible future treatments for the condition, which currently can’t be cured.

She’s the co-founder and co-director of the Oxford Centre of Gene Function, co-director of the MDUK Oxford Neuromuscular Centre, and director of the Medical Research Council functional genetics unit. She’s also published over 400 papers, and been recognised with several awards for her important and potentially life-saving work.

4. Colin Blakemore

Image shows Blakemore on a makeshift stage addressing a crowd with placards.
Blakemore is shown here addressing a crowd protesting cuts to science funding.

Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, Colin Blakemore is known for his work across a wide range of fields. His early impact came in the form of his work on neuroplasticity: the idea that the brain changes as a result of its environment, especially shortly after birth. Just as the way we use our bodies shapes them (think about the different physiques of weightlifters and marathon runners) so to is our brain shaped and changed by the uses we put it to. Blakemore has continued to explore and develop our understanding of neuroplasticity throughout his career.

Blakemore has also worked extensively in science communication and engagement – and not shying away from controversial subjects, such as defending the use of animal testing in scientific research, which has led to threats against his life. As head of the Medical Research Council, he worked to increase transparency and understanding of the role the MRC plays and how it funds research. His work, both in neuroscience and in science communication, has led to a plethora of awards and honours.

5. Andrew Wiles

Image shows a line drawing of Fermat.
Wiles’ engagement with Fermat’s Last Theorem dates from his childhood.

One of the best-known mysteries in mathematics is that of Fermat’s Last Theorem: that the equation an + bn = cn can’t be satisfied with any three positive integers a, b and c if the integer value of n is greater than 2. It was conjectured by Pierre de Fermat in 1637, but he wrote this only in the margins of a book, noting that he had a proof that did not fit in the margin space available. His proof has never been found, and mathematicians for 350 years failed to find a proof.

From the age of 10, Andrew Wiles was fascinated by this mathematical mystery. His interest in mathematics led him to study and research at Oxford, Cambridge, and Princeton. Finally, in 1995, he published a successful proof, which won him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. In 2018, he was appointed Regius Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. A Regius Professorship is a rare and prestigious title granted by the Queen, and Andrew Wiles is the first Regius Professor of Mathematics in Oxford’s thousand-year history.

Image credits: Merton St; London School of Medicine for Women; Wolfson College; St Anne’s College; IVF; Tim Berners-Lee; Jocelyn Bell Burnell; Duchenne muscular dystrophy; Colin Blakemore; Fermat.

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