Date of Publication: 24 May 2022
In the past 120 years, over 600 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to over 900 people and organisations around the world. Of these 900 recipients, the University of Cambridge has affiliations with the highest number of recipients, with 121 Nobel Prizes so far being awarded to affiliates of the university.
What is The Nobel Prize?
The Nobel Prize is an international award, administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm. It is awarded to individuals and organisations who have made significant contributions to scientific research, peace or social discourse that has benefitted and improved the lives of people around the world. There are six prizes in total: the Nobel Prize in Physics; Nobel Prize in Chemistry; Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; Nobel Prize in Literature; Nobel Peace Prize; and the Prize in Economic Sciences (added later to Nobel’s group of prizes and established by Sveriges Riksbank).
In commemoration of their work, each recipient is awarded a gold medal, a diploma and a monetary prize. A prize cannot be shared amongst more than three separate individuals but can be awarded to organisations for group efforts. Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as some of the most prestigious awards available in their respective fields.
They were founded by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, most famous for his invention of dynamite. When he passed away in 1896, he left a note in his will in which he asked that all of his “remaining realisable assets” were used to establish five prizes that would become known as “Nobel Prizes.” These prizes, he explained, were to be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to Mankind.”
On 10th December 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Literature and Peace. Since then, over 600 Prizes have been awarded with the ceremony continuing to take place annually.
Those who are awarded the Nobel Prize are called a Nobel Prize ‘laureate,’ referring to laurel wreaths which, in ancient Greece, were items awarded to victors as a sign and respect of honour.
How many Nobel Prizes does Cambridge have?
Since 1904, a total of 121 affiliates of the University of Cambridge have been awarded the Nobel Prize. These include alumni of the university, academic researchers in postdoctoral or faculty positions, fellowships, lectureships and those in other official appointments (University of Cambridge, 2022).
Of these 121 recipients, Trinity College is home to the most Nobel Laureates – 34 to be exact.
5 Famous Nobel Prize Recipients from Cambridge
Keep reading to learn more about some of the most famous Cambridge Nobel Prize winners, including Dorothy Hodgkin, the first female from Cambridge to have been awarded a Nobel Prize and Bertrand Russell, the first Cambridge laureate to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh (1904)
The University of Cambridge’s first ever Nobel Prize laureate was John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for his investigations of the densities of the most important gasses and for his discovery of argon in connection with these studies.” (Source)
Born in 1842 in Essex, he attended Eton College and Harrow School before going on to train as a mathematician at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1861. After obtaining both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts here, he was subsequently elected to a fellowship at the college which he held until 1871.
From 1879 to 1884, he was appointed as the second Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge where he laid much of the groundwork for his discovery into important gasses and the subsequent discovery of argon while carrying out these studies.
After his Nobel Prize in 1904, Strutt served as President of the Royal Society for three years before taking the seat as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge until his death in 1919.
Strutt is hailed as one of the leading physicists of the late 19th and early 20th century, providing some of the first theoretical ideas on the scattering of light particles, which notably explains why the sky is blue. He also contributed significantly ideas on fluid dynamics with concepts such as the Rayleigh number, Rayleigh flow, and the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, as well as being one of the earliest contributors to the birth of quantum mechanics, with his textbook The Theory of Sound (1877) still being used by acousticians and engineers around the world.
Bertrand Russell (1950)
Nobel Prize recipient, Bertrand Russell, was a mathematician, philosopher, logician, and political activist. He is recognised as one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, which, thanks to his writings, led him to become the first Cambridge University laureate to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As a child of one of the most aristocratic families in the early twentieth century, he was also a prominent social critic, made famous for his commitment to defend the rights of women, opposed racial segregation and the First World War – which even led to his imprisonment for sixth months. Unafraid to tackle the more difficult conversations within society, he shared many of his thoughts and opinions within his writing.
One of his most successful books, A History of Western Philosophy was cited as one of the books that contributed to Russell being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In it, he surveys different philosophical ideas across the Western hemisphere across a stretched period of time; from the earliest and pre-Socratic philosophers to the ideologies of key figures in the early twentieth century. Although many contemporaries criticised the book’s tendency to over-generalise and omit certain theories, it was a huge commercial success during its initial release in the 1940s and has remained in print ever since its first publication.
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950, it was “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” (Source)
Frederick Sanger (1958 and 1980)
There aren’t many scientists that can claim they’ve been Nobel Prize recipients twice, but Frederick Sanger is one of them. The first was in 1958 for his work on the structure of the insulin molecule, and the second award in 1980 was for his work with fellow scientists, Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert, in being able to determine the base sequence of nucleic acids.
Sanger was the son of a physician, born in 1918 in southwest England. In 1936, he entered St John’s College, Cambridge and pursued a BA in Natural Sciences. Once he completed his undergraduate studies, he remained at the university as a fellow, receiving an PhD degree in Biochemistry in 1943 for his work in exploring the metabolism of the essential amino acid, lysine.
In 1951, Sanger was invited to join the British Medical Research Council (BMRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, where he remained until his retirement in 1983. It was here where he was appointed director of protein and nucleic acid chemistry, and where he carried out much of the research which led to his two Nobel Prize awards.
Besides the Nobel Prizes, Sanger also received other honorary awards, including the Corday-Morgan Medal and Prize of the Chemical Society (1951; the William Bate Hardy Prize of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (1976); and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society (1977), to name a few.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1964)
British chemist, Dorothy Hodgkin, is one of the more unique and famous Nobel Prize winners from Cambridge. Firstly, she’s one of the few Nobel Prize winners who is also credited with being a close connection of both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. But secondly, and perhaps more poignantly, for being the first female from Cambridge to receive a Nobel Prize.
In 1928, Hodgkin began reading Chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford. Four years later, she graduated with a first-class honours degree, the third of only three women to have achieved that particular distinction since its founding in 1879. Later that year, she then began studying for a PhD at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she first became interested in the possibility of X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of biomolecules, a branch of molecular biology.
During her career, Hodgkin worked predominantly at the University of Oxford as both a fellow and tutor in chemistry (even tutoring British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), though she frequently returned to Cambridge as needed for her research. Among some of her most notable discoveries as a researcher in structural biology was the confirmation of the structure of penicillin – a continuation of the earlier work collated by Edward Abraham and Ernst Boris Chain – and, the structure of Vitamin B12, for which she was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.
Hodgkin’s advancements in molecular biology in the early twentieth century were greatly important because they since helped explain how the most important functions of cells are carried out, advancing modern medicine and our understanding of the human body significantly. As such, not only was she awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964, but she also received several other honorary awards including the Order of Merit (1965), the Copley Medal (1976), and the Lomonosov Gold Medal (1982).
Sir Roger Penrose (2020)
The most recent Cambridge Nobel Prize winner is Professor Sir Roger Penrose, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the combined contributions towards the discovery that black hole formation is a prediction of Isaac Newton’s general theory of relativity. As well as Penrose, a half-share of the award was also presented to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their contributions to the discovery of the supermassive compact object which sits at the centre of our galaxy.
Unlike the other recipients on this list, Penrose did not pursue his university studies at an Oxbridge college and instead attended University College London where he received a first-class degree in mathematics in 1962. Despite this, Penrose has earned a leading academic presence at these two leading universities in the UK; he is an Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, an emeritus fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, as well as University College London.
With a career predominantly in the field of mathematical physics, Penrose has made significant contributions to the study of cosmology and the mathematical physics of general relativity – attributed to his Nobel Prize award. Aside from his Nobel Prize in Physics, Penrose has been awarded several prizes, including the Wolf Prize in Physics (1988) which he shared with world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking for the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems.
Follow in the footsteps of these leading Cambridge academics
This summer, follow in the footsteps of these inspiring figures when you join us for a summer course in Cambridge. Visit the city where Cambridge Nobel Prize winners helped change the world and experience all that this world-class city has to offer.