How has the University of Cambridge produced more Nobel laureates than any other educational institution on earth?

When the Nobel Prize was established in 1901 in accordance with the wishes of Alfred Nobel’s will in 1895, it became the first international award to recognise achievements in physics, medicine, chemistry, peace and literature, plus an additional prize given in his name in economics. Given the long list of accomplishments in these fields by Cambridge students over the past several centuries, university affiliates were always going to feature strongly among the winners, but few could have guessed quite how well. Since the prize began, Cambridge University affiliates have received more Nobels than those of any other institution, with 98 winning Nobel prizes since 1904.

The Nobel Prize is not the only measure of a brilliant mind of course, and many dozen more great people in multiple fields have passed through Cambridge’s walls than could ever by represented by the Nobel roll of honour. But the sheer scale of Cambridge’s success in winning Nobels makes it a useful way to explore the university’s achievements over the past 115 years, and also allows us to consider how Cambridge can maintain such a marked level of achievement. Several patterns emerge, such as the way Cambridge offers a supportive and inspiring environment for people from all over the world, but also the way in which so many Nobel Laureates have thrived partly because of their proximity to other Nobel Laureates. It’s precisely this energising and challenging environment of international learning that Cambridge works so hard to maintain.

Alfred Nobel himself had no Cambridge connections. A Swedish inventor who held more than 355 patents, Nobel was best known as the inventor of dynamite, so when his obituary was published prematurely and criticised him for profiting from war – the “merchant of death is dead”, it read with chilling moral clarity – he decided to bequeath his fortune to create the Nobel Prizes. This would ensure that his life would be remembered more positively but would also, he hoped, inspire great minds into still greater achievements. He conceptualised the Nobel Prizes to reflect his personal interests in science, arts and social issues. As well as being an inventor and industrialist, Nobel held what some considered to be radical political views and also wrote poetry and plays. One play, Nemesis, was inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci and was deemed so scandalous it was only published in 2003.

Given Cambridge University’s commitment to the fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, astrophysics, economics, life and applied sciences, the Nobel Prizes could have been deliberately designed to play to its strengths. Cambridge’s dedication to innovation and breaking boundaries in education and research have also helped it secure many Nobel Prizes, and these are aspects that the university continues to nurture in the form of acquiring the best facilities and staff to create the sort of supportive but emboldening environment that stimulates creative thinking and a determination to challenge the most complex problems.

Since the first Cambridge Nobel Prize of 1904 – awarded to Lord Rayleigh of Trinity College in Physics for his discovery of Argon – the university has won Nobel Prizes in every category. It has achieved most of its successes in Physics, with 32 prizes, followed by 26 in Medicine, 24 in Chemistry, 11 in Economics, three in Literature and two in Peace. Trinity, home of that first Nobel recipient, also leads the way among the colleges with a total of 32 Nobel Laureates.


An international institution

Almost all of Cambridge’s 98 winners have had a considerable impact on the wider world, in keeping with the university’s philosophy that it is a place of international rather than simply national significance. This is also reflected in the diverse nationalities of those Cambridge alumni who have been awarded Nobel Prizes, including figures such as Niels Bohr, who won his prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr was Danish but did post-doc studies in Cambridge that furthered his groundbreaking research into atoms and radiation.

In that time, Bohr met and was encouraged in his work by two other hugely important physicists – the Australian William Lawrence Bragg and the New Zealander Ernest Rutherford. Both Bragg and Rutherford were also Nobel winners in Physics – Bragg in 1915 for his work with X-rays and Rutherford in 1908 for his research in atomic structure and radioactivity. It is this spirit of international co-operation with Cambridge acting as a crucible of learning, a gathering place for talent from across the globe, that explains some of the university’s achievements. This is a place where the world’s finest minds could meet, research and inspire each other with results that would change lives everywhere.

Rutherford is one of Cambridge’s best-known scientists and a former director of the Cavendish Laboratory. Rutherford has been described as the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday and although he won his Nobel for “investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”, he actually performed some of his most important work after 1908. In 1911, he pioneered the Rutherford model of the atom, which theorised that atoms have their charge concentrated in a very small nucleus and in 1917 his research led to the first splitting of the atom. At the Cavendish Laboratory he continued to inspire and encourage research into atoms, with the first controlled splitting of a nucleus taking place under his direction. His achievements were so formidable that when he died in 1937 he was given the honour of being interred with other great scientists, near to the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey, thus placing two of Cambridge’s greatest minds in close proximity.


Prize firsts

Another great Nobel-winning physicist from a very different background was Abdus Salam, who was born in poverty in Pakistan and won a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 thanks to his work on electromagnetic and weak particle interpretations. Salam won a scholarship to read maths and physics at St John’s and became the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize. Although much of his work was done in Pakistan, his Cambridge education was an essential part of his success. In 1950, he received the university’s Smith’s Prize for the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to Physics and then obtained a PhD in theoretical physics from the Cavendish Laboratory for a thesis on quantum electrodynamics that established his international reputation. Much like Nobel himself, he was a man with a social conscience and he used all of his prize money to benefit physicists from developing countries.

Equally inspiring is Cambridge’s first female Nobel laureate, Dorothy Hodgkin. She was born in Cairo and grew up in the Sudan, the daughter of two archaeologists. Her own field was chemistry at Newnham and Girton Colleges, and she was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for confirming the structure of Vitamin B12. Hodgkin remains the only British woman to receive a Nobel Prize in any of the three sciences. A Nobel Prize in Medicine was however won by Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009. A New Zealander who received a PhD from Darwin College in 1975, she was awarded for the discovering of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and enzyme telomerase.

Blackburn achieved her PhD while working under Frederick Sanger and Sanger was responsible for another landmark achievement for Cambridge affiliates in 1980, when he received his second Nobel Prize for Chemistry, having first done so in 1958. As such, he is one of only two people to have two Nobel Prizes in the same category, one of only four people with two Nobel Prizes in all categories and one of three with two Nobels in the sciences. His initial Nobel came for his work on the structure of protein, and he later said this gave him renewed confidence and vigour to continue his research. In 1980 he won again for “the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids”.

Sanger’s 1958 work allowed another Cambridge figure to make one of the most significant discoveries in the history of the world, which led to further Nobel Prizes in Medicine. Francis Crick of Caius and Churchill Colleges used Sanger’s research in his work on understanding DNA codes for proteins, a step on the road to determining the structure of DNA, for which Crick, American student James Watson (of Clare College) and Maurice Wilkins – who read physics at St John’s in 1938 – received the Nobel Prize in 1962. Crick and Watson met while working at the Cavendish Laboratory.

In terms of world significance, Crick and Watson are arguably matched by two more recent Nobel Prize winners in Medicine. Martin Evans won his prize in 2007 for his work in stem-cell research, having begun working in this field in 1981 when he became the first person to culture embryonic mice stem cells and cultivate them in the laboratory. Three years later, Robert Edwards received the 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work in in vitro fertilisation, which allowed millions of infertile couples to have children. Edwards was at Churchill College, arriving in 1963 as a Ford Foundation Research Fellow at the Department of Physiology. His pioneering work with Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecological surgeon, led eventually to the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, in 1978. There are now more than four million children on the planet who have been born as a result of IVF and Edwards received recognition for his work in 2010.


Beyond the sciences

In Economics, recent Cambridge Nobel successes include two of the world’s best-known names in the field – Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Stiglitz won in 2001 for his analysis of markets with asymmetric information. Born in Indiana, Stiglitz came to Cambridge in 1966 as a research fellow at Fitzwilliam College and then won a research fellowship at Caius. Sen is also of international background. He was born in India, coming to Trinity in 1953 to study pure economics and then receiving a prize fellowship, which he used to study philosophy. One thing that both Sen and Stiglitz received at Cambridge was a thorough immersion in the work of the university’s greatest economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, who died in 1946, never won a Nobel Prize but was nominated three times in the 1920s – not in Economics, which didn’t get its own Nobel award until 1969, but in Peace. Sen, heavily influenced by Keynes, won his Nobel in 1998 for his contributions to welfare economics.

The first Cambridge University-affiliated Nobel Prize in Literature went to one of the few figures who can rival Keynes in terms of stature. Sir Bertrand Russell received the prize in 1950 for his A History Of Western Philosophy, having read mathematics at Trinity in 1890. In 1910, he became a lecture at Trinity but was dismissed during the First World War after being convicted following his outspoken commitment to pacifism. He was reinstated after the war ended and became a fellow in 1944 until 1949. His Nobel Prize came in spite of his sometimes controversial political beliefs – something that Alfred Nobel himself would surely have welcomed.

Russell’s achievements covered numerous fields – maths, philosophy, literature and politics – and although he never won the Nobel Peace prize his beliefs were absolutely in accordance with the principles represented by that prize. Indeed, when Cambridge’s first Peace prize recipient died, it was Bertrand Russell who wrote an obituary. Published in International Relations and titled “Philip Noel-Baker: A Tribute”, this was written about an extraordinary man who is the only person to have won an Olympic medal and
a Nobel Prize. Noel-Baker, who studied at Kings’ College, won a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in the 1500 metres. During the First World War he had served on the Western Front as a conscientious objector in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and he remained committed to peace throughout his life. He helped found the League Of Nations, served in the coalition government during the Second World War as a Labour MP and organised the post-war 1948 London Olympics. His Nobel Prize came for his advocacy of multilateral nuclear disarmament.

Noel-Baker’s life is not a typical one, but the same could be said of almost any one of Cambridge’s Nobel Prize winners, all of whom have made the sort of monumental and life-changing achievements that few of us are equipped to imitate. But it’s no accident that so many people connected to Cambridge have gone on to effect global change in their chosen fields. At Cambridge, they are inspired and challenged by their peers, by the atmosphere of innovation and by the opportunity for international co-operation. For these reasons, Cambridge alumnus will continue to break new ground and open doors, and unquestionably more will arrive every year, eager to add their names to Cambridge’s proud list of Nobel Laureates.