Britain

We have a proud history of scientific achievement and innovation here in Great Britain. A surprising number of watershed technologies were born on this island, and us Brits have always been well-represented across a broad spectrum of scientific fields, from astrophysics to zoology and just about everything in between.

Don't believe us? Here are 15 famous scientists who were born right here in Blighty (and all since 1900 - apologies to fans of Charles Darwin, Ada Lovelace, Alexander Graham Bell and other pre-20th century science superstars!):

 

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Birthplace: London, England (1968)

Field: Astronomy

The first scientist on our list is also the youngest (although Brian Cox was born less than a week earlier). Maggie Aderin-Pocock is perhaps best known for hosting the current incarnation of long-running BBC series The Sky at Night, but she's not just a TV personality: she is an Honorary Research Associate in UCL's Department of Physics and Astronomy, and she's worked on a wide variety of projects over the course of her career, from developing landmine detection devices to managing the observation instruments for the Aeolus satellite.

Aderin-Pocock is also the Director of Science Innovation Ltd, an organisation that works to engage school-aged children in the field of space science.

 

Tim Berners-Lee

Birthplace: London, England (1955)

Fields: Engineering, Computer Science

If you've heard of Tim Berners-Lee, it's probably because he's the man who invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Without his world-changing work, you might not be reading this article right now!

But TimBL, as he's sometimes known, hasn't been resting on his laurels during the intervening three decades. He has worked with the UK government to help keep online information open and accessible, and he's been a key voice in the ongoing fight to preserve net neutrality.

 

James Black

Birthplace: Uddingston, Scotland (1924)

Field: Pharmacology

James Black won a scholarship to the University of St Andrews at the age of 15, and graduated from the university's prestigious School of Medicine - the oldest in Scotland - in 1946. In another life, he might have gone on to be a doctor, but he decided against this career path because he objected to the insensitive way in which patients were treated at the time.

Instead, Sir James Black is best known for developing propranolol and cimetidine, which are still used to treat heart disease and stomach ulcers respectively. He was knighted in 1981 and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.

 

Brian Cox

Birthplace: Oldham, England (1968)

Field: Physics

Professor Brian Cox is something of a household name these days, but in the grand scheme of things, it really hasn't been that long since the most notable entry on his CV was playing keyboards for D:Ream (on whose biggest hit, 'Things Can Only Get Better', he didn't even feature!).

It was during his music career that Cox completed a degree in physics at the University of Manchester. After that, he went on to get a PhD in particle physics, and nowadays he can be seen / heard on all sorts of science-themed TV and radio programmes. He has also co-authored a number of physics books, and he works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Speaking of which...

 

Lyn Evans

Birthplace: Aberdare, Wales (1945)

Field: Physics

Lyn Evans, nicknamed 'Evans the Atom', was the project leader of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland until 2008. He actually spent his first year at Swansea University studying chemistry, only switching to physics in his second year because - rather amusingly - he found physics easier.

Evans has been honoured with a number of science awards since stepping down as LHC project leader, including the Glazebrook Medal, the 2012 Special Fundamental Physics Prize, and the IEEE Simon Ramo Medal.

 

Rosalind Franklin

Birthplace: London, England (1920)

Field: Chemistry

In 1951, Rosalind Franklin - already an accomplished X-ray crystallographer - became a research associate at King's College London. Famously, her work at King's would prove crucial to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, the molecule that holds the genetic instructions for the growth and reproduction of every organism on planet Earth.

Franklin sadly died of ovarian cancer at just 37 years old. She was not nominated for a Nobel Prize in her lifetime, although her colleagues Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962, once DNA structure had been widely accepted as proven science. To this day, there is still debate over the degree to which Crick, Watson and Wilkins were taking credit for Franklin's work; as a result, she has become somewhat iconic of the discrimination that women in STEM fields face.

 

Isabella Gordon

Birthplace: Keith, Scotland (1901)

Field: Marine Biology

Dr Isabella Gordon was a leading expert in carcinology, the study of crustaceans (crabs and sea spiders were her particular speciality). During her 86 years of life, she worked at the Natural History Museum - no doubt a dream job for many British biology enthusiasts - received an OBE, and became a Fellow of the Zoological Society.

She also had the distinction of meeting with Emperor Hirohito while visiting Japan in 1961. The 'Grand Old Lady of Carcinology' (as she was posthumously dubbed) was invited to the laboratories of the Imperial Household and spoke to the Emperor, who was apparently something of a marine biology enthusiast himself.

 

Stephen Hawking

Birthplace: Oxford, England (1942)

Field: Theoretical Physics

What can we say about Stephen Hawking that you don't already know? BBC Earth have a great article listing Hawking's many scientific achievements (as well as the fact that he has appeared on TV shows like The Simpsons and Star Trek), so if you're not familiar with his work, we'd recommend starting there.

Stephen Hawking famously lived with motor neurone disease, which is why he used a wheelchair and communicated via American-accented voice software. When Hawking was first diagnosed, doctors estimated that he had approximately 2 years to live; that was in 1963, when Hawking was 21 years old. He eventually died in March 2018, a couple of months after his 76th birthday.

 

Peter Higgs

Birthplace: Newcastle upon Tyne, England (1929)

Field: Theoretical Physics

Ever heard of the Higgs boson? Peter Higgs is the man for whom that particle was named. He is a Nobel laureate who received the Prize for Physics in 2013 "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles". (Higgs shared the award with Belgian physicist François Englert in a great testament to the collaborative, border-crossing spirit of modern science.)

Rather remarkably, Higgs was awarded honorary degrees by 15 different institutions between 1997 and 2015. He was even offered a knighthood just prior to the turn of the millennium, but unlike some of the other people on this list, he turned it down, expressing his cynicism towards the British honours system.

 

Steve Jones

Birthplace: Aberystwyth, Wales (1946)

Field: Genetics

John Stephen Jones was rejected by all of the Welsh universities he applied for, so he ended up going to Scotland and studying zoology at the University of Edinburgh. Years later, he would be made Head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London.

Jones published a number of books and presented various TV programmes on the subject of evolution. The study of snails has proven a particular area of interest for him. In 1996, he won the Michael Faraday Prize for his contributions to public understanding of science.

 

Mary Leakey

Birthplace: London, England (1913)

Field: Palaeoanthropology

British palaeontologist Mary Leakey is notable primarily for discovering the first fossilised skull of Proconsul, an extinct primate that existed approximately 25 million years ago and is now thought to be an ancestor of human beings. She found the skull on Rusinga Island, a small island in Lake Victoria (that lies within the borders of Kenya).

The Proconsul skull was far from Leakey's only discovery, though - over the course of her career, she discovered no fewer than 15 new animal species, and 1 new genus. In 2013, 100 years after her birth, Mary Leakey's face appeared on both a Royal Mail postage stamp and a Google doodle.

 

Anne McLaren

Birthplace: London, England (1927)

Field: Developmental Biology

Millions of people currently walking the Earth were born via IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). This technology, which first yielded results in the 1970s, has allowed many would-be parents to conceive children they would otherwise have been unable to have.

Dame Anne McLaren's work was instrumental in the development of IVF as a viable solution to infertility problems. She was an officer of the Royal Society - the first woman to hold the position - as well as a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. She was sadly killed in a car accident at the age of 80, but her name lives on to this day: The Anne McLaren Memorial Trust Fund was founded after her death to support scientific study and events.

 

Alan Turing

Birthplace: London, England (1912)

Fields: Mathematics, Computer Science

Despite being dead for more than 60 years, Alan Turing was in the news recently when the passage of the so-called 'Alan Turing law' retroactively pardoned men who, like Turing himself, were convicted for their homosexuality. You might also remember the 2014 movie The Imitation Game, in which Turing was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.

If you saw that film, you know exactly why Turing is so famous: his code-breaking techniques enabled the Allies to defeat Axis forces in a number of key engagements during World War II. Turing's role in the eventual Allied victory was underappreciated during his lifetime, and he tragically died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 after being convicted of gross indecency and chemically castrated by his own government.

 

Elsie Widdowson

Birthplace: Wallington, England (1906)

Fields: Chemistry, Dietetics

Elsie Widdowson was a highly influential dietitian who, like Alan Turing, did her most notable work during World War II. As you're probably aware, rationing was introduced in Britain during the war in order to ensure that food supplies didn't run out. Widdowson, together with her colleague Dr Robert McCance, was tasked with overseeing the rationing effort, making sure that people were getting the nutrition they needed even during extreme food shortages.

Widdowson and McCance are also known for heading up the very first government-mandated addition of vitamins and minerals to food (e.g. adding calcium to bread). She became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976, a CBE in 1979, and she died in 2000 at the age of 93.

 

Robert Winston

Birthplace: London, England (1940)

Fields: Medicine, Biology

Recognisable by his signature moustache, the Right Honourable Lord Winston has done a lot of work to get the general public interested in biology and medicine. He has hosted a litany of BBC series, including Your Life in Their Hands, Child of Our Time, The Human Body, and many more.

Robert Winston is also a medical doctor. He graduated from The London Hospital Medical College in 1964 and quickly established himself as an expert in human fertility. He actually performed the world's first Fallopian tubal transplant in 1979 (although this procedure is seldom used nowadays, having been superseded by IVF - see Anne McLaren, above).

 

Hyper Recruitment Solutions (HRS) is a British recruitment company specialising in science and technology. We have offices in Essex, Manchester and Edinburgh - use the links below to learn more!

About HRS >   Browse Science Jobs >

Have you been meaning to get your little ones more involved and interested in science? Great – British Science Week is the perfect time to do so! 


British Science Week

British Science Week is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths. This incredible week is run by the British Science Association, who are encouraging people of all ages to participate in STEM events and activities.

They are hosting a number of events across the country if you’d like to take your child to one, but you can also get involved with British Science Week at home with the help of their free activity packs. You can view and download the activity packs here:

British Science Week Activity Packs >

If you have your own idea for a STEM event or activity, you can use the British Science Association’s networking platform Science Live to get other people in your area involved. The aim of this week is to get as many people involved in science as possible, so don’t be shy to engage with your community!

We think that this is a great way to get people of all ages involved in science. Hopefully, this celebration will spark an interest that leads to them pursuing careers in science industries too! Will you be doing anything to celebrate British Science Week this year? Why not take our quiz to find out what type of scientist you are?

Take Our Science Quiz >