Cambridge University is a highly prestigious institution based in Cambridge, England. Cambridge consistently ranks within the top 5 universities worldwide and, with a history of over 800 years, it is unsurprising the majority of this list are scientists who have made an immeasurable impact on our world. This page will discuss 15 of the top Cambridge alumni, many of whoms impact is so large, they are household names.

Scientists

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author. After gaining his undergraduate degree at Oxford, Hawking started his PhD in applied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge. It was at this time, at age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and was given a life expectancy of only two years. However, Hawking continued his studies, graduating in 1966 and continued his work at Cambridge. His most notable work includes the theoretical prediction of black hole radiation, known as Hawking radiation and for his book A Brief History of Time which broke the Sunday Times record by remaining on the bestseller list for 237 weeks. Despite his poor prognosis, Hawking lived until age 76 and received numerous recognitions for his life’s work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) was an English polymath who is best known for his work in physics. Newton attended Cambridge University from 1661 to 1664 where he read philosophy. Following this, he began studying various subjects privately which led to the development of his distinguished theories. Sir Newton is known for his laws of motion, the theory of gravity, the development of a reflecting telescope and the notion of Newtonian fluid. In 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge where he was elected a fellow of Trinity College and became the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.

Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) was an American theoretical physicist and scientific director of the Manhattan Project. After education in the United States, Oppenheimer studied experimental physics at Cambridge University from 1924 to 1926 before leaving to pursue theoretical physics. Oppenheimer made significant contributions to the field of physics, particularly in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. Recognised for his abilities and potential, Oppenheimer was appointed director of the Manhatten Project in the Los Alamos Laboratory where he played a crucial role in developing the atomic bomb that ended the Second World War. He later faced scrutiny during the Cold War due to his communist affiliations which led to the removal of his security clearance.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English naturalist and biologist, best known for his theory of evolution. Darwin attended Cambridge University from 1828 to 1831 where his passion for natural science was developed. From 1831 to 1836, Darwin went on his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle and his work at this time established him as an eminent geologist. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species which provided compelling evidence on his theory of evolution. Unfortunately, at the time he received great criticism for his work, often racially based due to the eugenics movement that was prevalent at the time. By the 1870’s, the scientific community had widely recognised his theory of evolution as fact.

Srinivasa Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887 – 1920) was an Indian mathematician who became the first Indian to be elected as Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Although he received almost no formal education in mathematics, Ramanujan made significant contributions to fields such as mathematical analysis, number theory and continued fractions.

Niels Bohr

Niels Nohr (1885 – 1962) was a Danish physicist who made significant contributions to the understanding of the atom and quantum theory. From 1911, Bohr worked at the University of Cambridge where he developed the Bohr model of the atom and conceived the principle of complementarity. For his research, Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing (1912 – 1954) was an English mathematician and computer scientist known for his work breaking the Enigma code and developing the Turing machine. Turing graduated from Cambridge with a degree in mathematics in 1934 before earning a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University. Shortly after, Turing began work at Bletchley Park where famously broke the German code in World War Two with the Enigma machine. After the war, Turing continued to work in computing, however faced prosecution as a homosexual where he was forced into chemical castration, sadly leading to his suicide in 1954. Turing leaves a legacy as the father of theoretical computer science and his work layed the foundation of modern computer technology.

William Harvey

William Harvey (1578 – 1657) was an English physician known for his contributions in anatomy and physiology. In the early 17th century, Harvey earned a degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Cambridge before working at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London where he stayed for the rest of his life. William Harvey is known as the first physician to completely describe the human circulatory system, making significant advancements in the understanding at the time.

Writers and Editors

Lord Byron

Lord George Byron (1788 – 1824) was an English poet who studied for three years at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Following his education, Byron travelled Europe where he wrote some of the greatest poems including Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Hebrew Melodies. During his later life, Lord Byron joined the Greek War of Independence and was regarded as a hero by the Greek community. Byron leaves a legacy as one of the major figures in the Romantic movement and one of the best English poets of all time.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was an English philosopher and author, although he can fit into many other categories as he was also a prominent member of the Scientific Revolution. Bacon studied the medieval curriculum at Trinity College in the University of Cambridge for three years from 1573, at the age of only 12! Known as the father of empiricism, Bacon is known for his work on the scientific method particularly based on inductive reasoning. Additionally, he was a prolific writer and published the notable philosophical work Novum Organum.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963) was an American poet and writer who studied at the University of Cambridge where she struggled with depression. During her education, Plath actively wrote poetry and published her work in the student newspaper Varsity. Throughout her life, Sylvia Plath wrote critically acclaimed works such as Ariel and The Bell Jar before committing suicide at the age of 30. Plath has been posthumously recognised through many awards including a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1982.

Actors

Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson is a British actor and writer. Thompson studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge where she joined the prestigious sketch comedy group Cambridge Footlights where she met other notable actors Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Emma began a highly successful acting career where she is known for her roles in works like Love Actually and Saving Mr Banks. Thompson has been recognised for her talent with two Academy Awards, three BAFTA Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and DBE appointment by Queen Elizabeth II.

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is an English actor, broadcaster and writer. Fry attended Queen’s College, Cambridge where he read English Literature and gained recognition for his acting ability through his work with High Laurie and Emma Thompson in Footlights. Stephen Fry is known for his comic double act performances with High Laurie, his work in Blackadder, his audio narration of the Harry Potter series and his later extensive career as a TV host. Fry has been widely recognised for his work and has received numerous awards.

John Cleese

John Cleese is an English actor, screenwriter and presenter who graduated from Cambridge University in 1963 with a degree in law. After his engagement with Cambridge Footlights, Cleese pursued a career in the film and television industry. Cleese is most famous for co-writing the sitcom Fawlty Towers where he also starred as the hotel owner Basil Fawlty. The show won numerous awards and in 2001, Cleese’s character was ranked second on a list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters.

Economists

Joseph Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz is an American economist who worked as a research fellow at the University of Cambridge from 1966 to 1970. Stiglitz is a highly accomplished economist known for his work in risk aversion and the Henry George theorem and was recognised with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001. From 1997 to 2000, Sttiglitz served in office as the Chief Economist of the World Bank and is now a professor of economics at Columbia University.

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