Famous Oxford Alumni | Interesting Figures Throughout History
he University of Oxford was founded in 1096, dating back to over 900 years ago. Thousands of their students have passed through the doors and gone on to successfully graduate with their degrees. And just some of the alumni of the University of Oxford have gone on to make their mark in history.
Have you ever wondered about the life behind some of the greatest minds that have made up the Oxford University alumni? What have been some of their greatest achievements or even, who are some of the most famous?
To answer some of those questions – we’ve collated 4 amazing individuals that we believe will inspire you to discover your potential. No matter the struggles or backgrounds these individuals faced, it never stopped them from making their difference.
Let’s meet some of the most famous Oxford alumni…
Emily Wilding Davison, 1872 -1913
Emily Davison was a British activist, who is widely recognised for campaigning for the right for women to vote. Emily was a pioneering activist, famous for having joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). But before we learn more about her work, let’s dive into her early life and how she became such a significant part of history.
Emily Wilding Davison’s Early Life and Career
Even with the limitations for women and education during the time of her upbringing, Emily was deemed to be a smart and determined student. Educational opportunities were limited for women but Emily took classes at Royal Holloway College and St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford. As an Oxford alumni student, she was awarded first-class honours in English, but could not officially graduate because degrees from Oxford were closed to women until 1920.
After leaving Royal Holloway and the University of Oxford, she found work as a teacher and started dedicating her time to social and political activism. By 1906 she joined the WSPU – founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. After 3 years of teaching, Emily decided to leave her teaching career and turn her full attention to the cause of women’s suffrage.
By 1909, Emily had been arrested on numerous occasions and was not afraid of the consequences of her political actions; willing to be arrested regularly, and ended up imprisoned several times for many protest-related offenses. “In March, July, September, and October 1909, she was arrested – twice for ‘obstruction’ and twice for stone-throwing”. (Kuiper, 2021) Soon after her jail time, Davison and her fellow activists adopted a policy in which if they were arrested, they would immediately begin a hunger strike.
But why? When the WSPU activists started this policy, this would grant the prisoners early release because British authorities did not want to be responsible for their deaths. But over time, for the government to keep control of protesters, authorities began to react to these hunger strikes by force-feeding the prisoners.
Emily was a very passionate feminist and soon gained a reputation as a violent campaigner who captured the world’s attention to get her voice to be heard. Her involvement started with the WSPU however, she took things into her own hands when she started using stone-throwing and arson attacks – these actions however were not approved by the WSPU.
Following Emily’s death
Sadly, Emily Davison passed away in 1913, meaning she missed quite a lot of the positive changes for women which she had dedicated her life to pursuing.
In 1914 World War I began, meaning the British government needed the support of all citizens, As such, they persuaded the WSPU to put a halt on all the suffrage activities until the European mainland fighting had ended.
However, on February 6th, 1918, towards the end of the First World War, – The Representation of the People Act was passed. This allowed landowning women over the age of 30 to vote!
Before this date and as a consequence of the war, only 58% of the adult male population was eligible to vote, mainly because men had to have been in the country 12 months prior to elections in order to be able to cast their vote.
As such, this disenfranchised a large number of troops who had been serving overseas in the war. With a general election imminent, politicians were persuaded to extend the vote to all men and some women at long last so they could win a majority vote.
Later on in that same year, on 21st November 1918 and the end of WW1, the Qualification of Women’s act passed, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP.
A total of 17 women stood in the general election that December. One was elected, Countess Constance Markievicz for the Dublin constituency of St Patrick’s. However as a member of Sinn Fein, she did not take her seat at the Westminster Parliament.
Greatest achievements you may not have known about…
Emily was well known for being a militant women’s suffrage activist and gained popularity because of her daring actions. She did not fear the consequences.
She sadly passed away during a protest at the Epsom Derby on 8th June 1913 after running out onto the race track and being trampled by the King’s horse.
Some speculate that her death was actually an attempted suicide to gain more support for the women’s suffrage movement.
Emily’s funeral was organised by WSPU, where over 50,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects.
Emily Davison is just one of the most pioneering figures of the women’s suffrage movement, but she was just one of the many others who devoted their lives to campaigning. The right for women to vote would not have been won in 1918 without the struggles and sacrifices of hundreds of suffragettes.
Albert Einstein, 1879 – 1955
Albert Einstein was a world-famous physician, famed for having developed many key scientific theories in modern culture. In fact, today he is still regarded as one of the most influential scientists of the 20th Century and recognised as one of the most famous people with links to Oxford University.
Einstein’s Early Life and Career
Einstein was a German-born physicist, known for his first ground-breaking theories. But he was also a fond lover of the city of Oxford where he made 3 different visits to the city, held great connections with the university and became the first Jewish-German academic to take up a post at Christ Church, Oxford between 1931 – 1933.
During his stays in Oxford, he gave lectures to the staff and students at the university. The first took place on Saturday 9th May at Rhodes House to an overflowing number of university staff and 500 students picked from a range of academic backgrounds.
These lectures were given in German without any notes except a blackboard, with the English title “The theory of relativity” – which has now been preserved by ‘The Museum of the History of Science’ in Oxford. Though he wasn’t a direct alumnus of Oxford, he made a significant appearance, educating both staff and students, sharing his knowledge with like-minded people.
1905 – an important date in scientific history and marked as Einstein’s miracle year. Einstein moved to Bern to work as a clerk in a Swiss patent office. He would go on working 6 days a week, and would barely find the time to develop any of his scientific ideas. Some would think he would eventually give up on his career in physics however, this was quite the opposite. In fact Einstein did some of his most creative work, producing 4 ground-breaking articles, one of which was his famous equation E=mc2 – (Where “C” was the constant speed of light).
Now we’ve taken some time to look at the early life and career of Albert Einstein, along with his ties to the University of Oxford, let’s take a look at some of his most famous papers.
- ‘On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light’ – In his first paper, he applied quantum theory to light to explain the phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect. In his paper, Einstein explains in detail how materials emit electrically charged particles when hit by light.
- ‘On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat’ – His second paper spoke about the Brownian motion being a natural phenomenon. It goes on to explain and prove the existence of atoms, where he revolutionised all major sciences through the use of statistics and probability, proving any liquid is made up of molecules.
- ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’ – Einstein’s third paper-faced challenging foundations about space and time, which was heavily critiqued by the physics community at the time. He applied two principal theories of physics: Issac Newton’s concept of absolute space and time and James Clerks Maxwell’s idea that the speed of light was a constant. He theorised whether the relativity principle could be applied to electrodynamic theory as well – where the laws of physics are the same even for objects moving in different inertial frames.
- ‘Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?’ – Mentioned previously, this is the paper most famously known for his equation, E=mc2. This paper was written to understand the fundamental relationship between mass and energy, a concept that was once viewed by scientists separately.
These are just a selection of some of Einstein’s incredible contributions to the world of physics. If you want to find out more, click on the links to further understand his research.
Facts you may not have known about…
- Before winning his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, he promised as part of his divorce settlement to give his prize money to his first wife Mileva Maric.
- Einstein was a talented musician – growing up his mother was a good pianist, she made Albert begin playing the violin at a young age. It was said from those who knew Einstein that if he didn’t pursue a career in science, he would have been an accomplished violinist.
- Einstein has a larger brain than an average person. After he died a post-mortem was performed to suggest that he had a high number of glial cells per neuron, which scientists have analysed to mean that he had better-thinking abilities and conceptual skills than an average person.
Stephen Hawking, 1942 -2018
Stephen Hawking was born on January 8th, 1942 in Oxford, England. He was an English theoretical physicist and without a doubt one of the most famous Oxford alumni students and men in scientific history.
Stephen Hawking, known for his exploding black hole theories, based much of his work upon both relativity theory and quantum mechanics, as well as working with space-time singularities.
Hawking studied physics at the University College (1962), Oxford, and then at Trinity Hall, Cambridge for his Ph.D. (1966). When Hawking began his studies at University of Oxford, his ideas started to be taken seriously by tutors there after interesting classroom debates, tutorial sessions, lectures, and independent study. However, it was also during his undergraduate studies here that he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Symptoms of ALS can vary from person to person, but it typically involves muscle weakness, stiffness, or slurred speech. Even being diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, his main concern was whether it would affect his brain. It is known that the disease does not affect a person’s mind, personality, smell, taste, or touch.
Even with these disadvantages, Stephen Hawking still made scientific history. Mentioned earlier in this blog, Einstein discovered the theory of relativity, while Hawking studied his perspective of gravitation and began to break down the history of the universe, starting with the Big Bang Theory.
Hawking’s greatest scientific achievement was the discovery about black holes in 1970, which stunned many physicists. He challenged Einstein’s theory that nothing, including light, could escape from inside a black hole. Hawking’s found that a black hole is not completely black. “Instead, due to the subtle consequences of quantum physics, they emit what we now call Hawking radiation” (Preskill, 2018).
In 1974, Hawking tried to disprove a student named Jacob Bekenstein who wrote a hypothesis about “matter escaping blacks holes before crossing the event horizon- that is, the atomic ‘point of no return’ for matter being consumed by a black hole.” (IQS, 2021) This student was inspired by Hawking’s’ style of thinking and wanted to challenge his theory. By 1974, Hawking realized that his student was right, and this stunned the physics community. It was theorized that some things can escape the black hole.
After 40 years from Hawking’s first revolutionary paper about the black hole, Hawking published another paper suggesting that black holes are not quite as all-encompassing as he first believed. Hawking believed that neither entropy nor the area of a black hole could ever decrease. Whereas “Dr. Bekenstein suggested in his Ph.D. thesis that the black hole’s entropy, a measure of the disorder or wasted energy in a system, was proportional to the area of a black hole’s event horizon, the spherical surface in space from which there is no return.” (Overbye, 2015) According to Hawking’s original theory, anything with entropy had to have a temperature and anything with a temperature must radiate heat and light however, the black hole could not radiate heat and therefore applying physical law, it could not have a temperature and therefore no entropy.
Facts you may not have known about…
- Originally, Hawking wanted to study mathematics. However, this course was not available at University College in Oxford so instead he studied physics. After 3 years, he earned a first-class degree in natural sciences.
- Hawking obtained his doctorate in applied mathematics and theoretical physics with his thesis titled ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’, presenting this at Trinity College at the age of 24.
- Hawking holds a total of 13 honorary degrees.
- From 1997 up until his passing in 2018, Hawking solely relied on a computer system to communicate. A tablet installed on the arm of his wheelchair – the program was run by Intel and allowed him to select characters and words by detecting movement made with his cheek.
J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892 – 1973
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R), recognised as one of the ‘Oxford greats’ and English writer, famous for being the author of the high fantasy works, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
J.R.R. studied at Exeter College, making him another famous Oxford University alumni of English Literature which sparked his lifelong career. As well as studying at Exeter College, he also spent time teaching at the University of Oxford, specifically English Language and Literature. During his time in this position at the university, he published his popular fantasy novels ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.
J.R.R. has been known for his quirky personality, something you may not expect from an Oxford professor. Fond memories are held with students who were students in his classes, which were loud, colourful and flamboyant – though he was known as quiet and unassuming in public. People who knew him would describe J.R.R. to be someone you wouldn’t expect. For example, when he attended parties, he would go “dressed as a polar bear, and even chased a neighbour dressed as an axe wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior” (Gottesman, 2020). J.R.R. would never disappoint and always brought joy to the party.
Along with J.R.R.’s quirky personality, it has been known that he has always wanted to create a new mythology for England. He believed, unlike Scotland, Ireland and Wales; England didn’t have a story of its own. J.R.R. aspired to restore an English epic tradition and create a mythology of his own. ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ is an ode to this, based on Tolkien’s ambition to create a mythology fantasy.
But his desire for the fantastical led him further than simply building his own universe; he would even go on to create his own language. J.R.R. had a love for creating languages, which is evident in all his mythological writings. He started in his teens, drawing on Latin and Spanish to create new words and phrases. He established his ‘Elvish’ languages, along with Quenyua and Sindarin which were influenced by Finnish and Welsh. Who would have known?
J.R.R. was very fixated on the details of his stories and fantasies, if something didn’t add up or make sense, he would re-write his stories to ensure he could create something as realistic as possible. A true perfectionist at heart.
Facts you may not have known about…
Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies, and has been translated into 38 different languages (have you got your copy?) J.R.R Tolkien is one of the most-read authors, and has been known as the father of modern fantasy. Whilst he was grading papers at Oxford, he spontaneously wrote a short line about “a hobbit” in one of his notes, and well, the rest is history. The Hobbit has been a great influence on the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons.
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Love to learn history? Discover 4 interesting Oxford alumni and find out more about their successes and achievements.