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10 Nobel Prize Winners of Oxford and Cambridge

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The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are both known for their Nobel laureates – Oxford has 69 and Cambridge has an astonishing 118, more than any other university in the world except Harvard, and more than any country other than the USA and UK.

You might see the numbers of laureates by university vary – for instance, some universities don’t count visiting fellows towards their total. And what happens in cases where someone has a long-standing association with a particular university, but won their Nobel prize for something they did before that association began? In this article, we’ve taken a relaxed definition of what it means to have an affiliation with a university. Here are ten of the most interesting and notable Nobel laureates of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

1. Dorothy Hodgkin (Oxford and Cambridge, Chemistry, 1964)

Image shows a physical model of penicillin, on a stand.
Dorothy Hodgkin made this model of penicillin in 1945.

The first British woman to win a Nobel prize, Dorothy Hodgkin is a graduate of both Oxford, where she studied for her BSc and then returned as a fellow – and Cambridge, where she studied for her PhD. At the time when she was studying for her BSc in Oxford, she would not have been able to take a degree at Cambridge, which did not grant women full degrees until 1947.

Hodgkin’s work was focused around her refinement of the technique of X-ray crystallography, which enabled her to uncover the structure of different biomolecules. This included confirming the structure of penicillin, and discovering the structure of vitamin B12 and later insulin – discoveries which helped to uncover how these biomolecules work. As a tutor at Oxford, Hodgkin taught Margaret Thatcher when she was an undergraduate, and Thatcher later displayed a portrait of Hodgkin in Downing St, though the two women had markedly different political views. Alongside the Nobel prize, her groundbreaking work was recognised with the Order of Merit, which she became only the second woman to receive, after Florence Nightingale, and she was also the first woman to receive the Royal Society’s Copley Medal.

2. Bertrand Russell (Cambridge, Literature, 1950)

Image shows a black-and-white photo of Bertrand Russell holding a pipe.
Bertrand Russell, in a photo from 1936.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell had an on-and-off lifelong affiliation with Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had studied as an undergraduate, and where he was a lecturer and Fellow. The affiliation was on and off because of establishment disapproval of Russell’s radical views: he was an avowed and active pacifist, which led to a criminal conviction and imprisonment in 1916; he was an agnostic; and he was married four times, with many lovers in addition to his wives.

Russell’s work was wide-ranging, across philosophy, mathematics and logic; he helped to found the field of analytic philosophy. In line with his philosophical views, he was a social activist, arguing for women’s suffrage, pacifism, socialism, population control, racial equality, freedom of speech, and generally for politics based on scientific principles. The Nobel Prize was not awarded to Russell for any one specific work, but instead “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” Like Hodgkin, he was also awarded the Order of Merit.

3. Amartya Sen (Oxford and Cambridge, Economics, 1998)

Image shows Amartya Sen in front of a university building.
Amartya Sen is now based at Harvard University.

Born in Bengal in 1933, Amartya Sen was just nine years old when he witnessed the famine of 1943, which killed three million people. Nearly 20 years later, he wrote on poverty and famines, arguing that a famine is not only caused by lack of food – indeed, that in Bengal in 1943 there had been sufficient food to feed the population, had its supply not been affected by British military policies, panic buying and rapid price rises. By then, he was teaching at the University of Oxford – he would later also become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge – and his scholarly approach that combined philosophy with economics have led to him being regarded as one of the world’s leading intellectuals. It was for his work on famine that he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Sen has led on our economic understanding of development and the developing world, providing new means of assessing poverty and the welfare of a population. He has argued that such measures should be used alongside other measures such as GDP and productivity measures, so that governments will be able to assess the impact of their policies on people’s day-to-day lives.

4. Frederick Sanger (Cambridge, Chemistry, 1958 and 1980)

Image shows the Sanger Institute on a sunny day.
The Sanger Institute for genomics and genetics research is named after Frederick Sanger.

Only five people and one institution have won the Nobel Prize more than once; Frederick Sanger is the only person to have done so in Chemistry. A graduate of St John’s College, Cambridge, he spent his whole career in various branches of the university, and even supervised the PhDs of two scientists who themselves went on to win Nobel Prizes, Rodney Porter and Elizabeth Blackburn (whose work is discussed later in this article).

Sanger’s first discovery, with wide-ranging significance, was determining that proteins have a defined and consistent chemical composition, which he proved by determining the complete amino acid sequence and structure of bovine insulin. This earned him the Nobel prize in 1958, as well as – in his words – giving him “renewed confidence and enthusiasm to continue in this way of life”. His second Nobel Prize was for his work in sequencing DNA, where he developed what is now known as the Sanger method for sequencing DNA more quickly and accurately than could previously be achieved – a method that was ultimately used to sequence the entire human genome.

5. Malala Yousafzai (Oxford, Peace, 2014)

Image shows Malala Yousafzai against a plain background.
Before Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize was 25.

The youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize before she was even old enough to go to university. She is currently an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall. When she was aged just 11, her father, a teacher, was approached by the BBC who were covering the Taliban occupation of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, where she lived. The BBC sought a schoolgirl to blog anonymously about her experiences: her father suggested that Yousafzai herself could be the blogger. In opposition to girls’ education, the Taliban had closed and even destroyed local girls’ schools.

Yousafzai’s blogs were highly successful, and by 2009 – at the age of 12 – she shed her anonymity and became more and more involved in campaigning for girls’ education. But the Taliban objected to her increased activism. In 2012, a Taliban gunman stopped her school bus, and shot her through the head in an attempt to murder her. Astonishingly, she survived the attempt and made a near-complete recovery. Her activism continued, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize at the age of just 17 in recognition of her fight for children’s education.  

6. Elizabeth H Blackburn (Cambridge, Medicine, 2009)

Image shows Elizabeth Blackburn in front of some bookcases.
Elizabeth Blackburn has recently published her first book, about telomeres.

Australian-American Elizabeth Blackburn completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge, with Frederick Sanger as her supervisor. It was there that she met her future husband, and together they took up posts at Yale, where her most significant work to date has been completed. Blackburn’s research for which she won the Nobel Prize was on telomerase, the enzyme that Blackburn discovered produces the DNA of telomeres, which protect the end of chromosomes so that they replicate accurately when a cell divides.

Telomeres also play a role in ageing, and in many diseases, most notably cancer. It’s their role in ageing that Blackburn now researches in her role at the University of California. She also investigates the impact of stress on telomeres; it’s previously been found that intimate partner violence damages health by shortening telomeres, and it seems likely that stress may have the same effect.

7. Erwin Schrödinger (Oxford, Physics, 1993)

Image shows the bust of Erwin Schrödinger.
Erwin Schrödinger is commemorated with a bust in the University of Vienna.

Erwin Schrödinger was associated with a number of different universities, including a period as a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. It was during his time in Oxford that Schrödinger won the Nobel Prize, though he did not settle well there, as university authorities objected to his unconventional lifestyle. He is known as “the father of quantum mechanics”, and it was for his work in quantum mechanics that he won the Nobel Prize, specifically for the development of the Schrödinger equation. This is a differential equation that describes the wave function of a quantum-mechanical system, and it is foundational to all applications of quantum mechanics.

Outside of the scientific community, Schrödinger is perhaps better known for his Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, which demonstrates the difficulty of understanding the concept of quantum superposition in quantum mechanics, where a quantum system is in multiple positions simultaneously. The thought experiment – now often misunderstood – compares this to a cat in a closed box. The box contains a poison that may or may not be released depending on the decay of a tiny amount of a radioactive substance. Because there is no way of knowing whether the poison has been released or not, the cat may be alive or dead – it is in quantum superposition, both alive and dead, until it is observed to be one or the other.

8. Ernest Rutherford (Cambridge, Chemistry, 1908)

Image shows Rutherford sitting on a chair in a laboratory.
Ernest Rutherford is here shown in his laboratory.

Born in New Zealand, Ernest Rutherford carried out postgraduate study at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, where he worked on the detection of radio waves. From Cambridge he moved to Montreal, where he carried out the research that would win him the Nobel Prize: discovering the concept of radioactive half-life, work which he continued to carry out in a subsequent move to Manchester.

With the outbreak of war, his research shifted to the problem of detecting submarines – where his work on radio waves became crucial – and after the war, he became Director of the Cavendish Laboratory where he had once been a postgrad, and multiple further Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory while he was in charge. The Nobel Prize was only one of many honours he was given, including the Copley Medal and countless honorary doctorates.

9. TS Eliot (Oxford, Literature, 1948)

Image shows TS Eliot and two women in the garden of a grand house.
Taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell, this photo shows TS Eliot with his sister and cousin.

Possibly the best-known modernist poet, TS Eliot was a US citizen who won a scholarship to Merton College in 1914. He found Oxford pretty but disliked university towns in general, preferring to spend time in London, returning to Oxford to teach evening classes there. He settled in Britain permanently, eventually renouncing his US citizenship to become a British citizen. Despite not getting on well with Oxford, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the university.

TS Eliot is perhaps best known for the stream-of-consciousness poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ and the ‘The Waste Land’, both of which are considered among the most important works of modernism. What might be recognised by a greater number of people, though, is the light verse that he wrote in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and became the basis for the popular music Cats. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948 “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”, the same year in which he received the Order of Merit.

10. John Gurdon (Oxford and Cambridge, Medicine, 2012)

Image shows a human stem cell.
Stem cells are of vital importance in medical research.

John Gurdon’s early career was at Oxford, including being an undergraduate at Christ Church, but the majority of his career has been spent at Cambridge. His Nobel Prize was awarded in 2012, jointly with Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka, for the discovery that mature cells could be converted to stem cells.

This relatively innocuous-sounding discovery has wide-ranging consequences. Stem cells are valuable in a wide variety of research contexts, but until Gurdon’s discovery, they could only be obtained from embryos, which has proven controversial. Being able to reprogramme mature cells means that cells such as easily accessible skin cells can be taken from a consenting adult donor. This doesn’t just help resolve some ethical qualms; it also means that when researching a disease – for instance – cells can be taken from someone with that disease, giving researchers a much better model than cells from an embryo without a history of the disease. And all of this was achieved by a man who came last out of the 250 boys in his year group in Biology during his time at secondary school at Eton College.

Image credits: Nobel Prize; penicillin; Bertrand Russell; Amartya Sen; Sanger Institute; Malala Yousafzai; Elizabeth Blackburn; Erwin Schrödinger; Ernest Rutherford; TS Eliot; stem cell.

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