Johnian Nobel Laureates
"For the greatest benefit to mankind"
The Nobel Prizes recognise and reward the discoveries that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind, in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economic sciences.
Since their establishment in 1895, Nobel Prizes have, to date, been won by ten Johnians - including one double-winner in Frederick Sanger. You can find out about each Laureate below.
1933: Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984)
Nobel Prize for Physics 1933 (jointly with Erwin Schrödinger)
"for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory"
Paul Dirac came to St John’s in 1923 to read for a PhD in Mathematical Physics, having already received his BSc from Bristol. After having his doctorate conferred in 1926, he remained associated with St John’s until his death in 1984; firstly as a Title A (Research) Fellow from 1927-32, then as a Professorial Fellow from 1932-69, while he held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University. He remained a Fellow of the College from 1969-84 under Title D, whilst ending his career as Professor of Physics at Florida State University (1971-84).
Throughout his career he made numerous contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, the latter of which he is regarded as the founder of. Amongst other things, he predicted the existence of anti-matter and formulated the relativistic equation for the electron.
His distinguished career garnered him many honours and plaudits. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1930, going on to receive many of its top awards: Royal Medal in 1939, Bakerian Lecture in 1941 and the Copley Medal in 1952. He was awarded the Order of Merit (OM) in 1973, an Honour restricted to 24 living persons at any one time.
1947: Edward Victor Appleton (1892-1965)
Nobel Prize in Physics 1947
"for his investigations of the physics of the upper atmosphere especially for the discovery of the so-called Appleton layer"
Edward Appleton was born and educated in Bradford, coming to St John’s in 1911 to read Natural Sciences. He achieved a first class BA in 1914 and after service in the First World War, returned to St John’s as a Foundress Fellow from 1919-1925. During this time he was College Supervisor in both Physics and Mineralogy and an Assistant Demonstrator in Experimental Physics in the University. After that, he spent over a decade at King’s College London, as the Wheatstone Professor of Physics.
In 1924, he began investigation into the strength of the radio signals reaching Cambridge from the BBC in London, proving the existence of a reflective layer of the earth’s atmosphere - ionised gas which reflects medium frequency radio waves - a theory that had been proposed in 1902 by the scientists Oliver Heaviside and Arthur Kennelly (the Kennelly-Heaviside layer). Furthermore, in 1926 his experiments discovered another, higher layer of atmosphere that reflected shorter wavelengths with greater strength (the Appleton layer), enabling long range communication.
His scientific research saw him elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927. He was awarded the Hughes Medal in 1933, the Bakerian Lecture in 1937 ("Regularities and Irregularities in the Ionosphere”) and the Royal Medal in 1950, “For his work on the ele [sic] transmission of electromagnetic waves round the earth and for his investigations of the ionic state of the upper atmosphere”.
He returned to Cambridge in 1936 to become Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy (and again, a Fellow of the College). This lasted only three years, however, as on the outbreak of the Second World War he was appointed Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. His research was instrumental to Robert Weston-Watt’s invention of the radar, a key component of the allied success in the Battle of Britain. He was made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1941 and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in 1946.
In 1947, Appleton was the recipient of three prestigious honours: The Nobel Prize for Physics, the US Medal for Merit and the Norwegian Cross of Freedom. In 1949, he left the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to take up the position of Principal and Vice Chancellor at Edinburgh University, where he remained until his death in 1965.
1951: John Douglas Cockcroft (1897-1967)
Nobel Prize in Physics 1951 (jointly with Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton)
"for their pioneer work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles"
Born in Todmorden, Lancashire, John Cockcroft served as a Signaller in the Royal Artillery from 1915-18, interposing stints studying Mathematics at the University of Manchester (1914-15), and Electrical Engineering at the Manchester College of Technology (1919-20). After receiving his BSc, he spent two years as an apprentice with Metropolitan-Vickers before joining St John’s in 1922 to read Mathematics - a first class BA in 1924 preceding a PhD in 1928.
Following the conferral of his doctorate, Cockcroft would remain in Cambridge until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, as a Fellow of St John’s and as the College’s Junior Bursar from 1933-39. Meanwhile, he moved through the ranks in the University as Demonstrator in Physics from 1929-35, then Lecturer from 1935-39 before being appointed Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy (succeeding fellow Johnian and Nobel Laureate, Edward Appleton) in 1939.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1936. In 1938 he shared the Hughes Medal with Ernest Walton (with whom he would later share the Nobel) “For their discovery that nuclei could be disintegrated by artificially produced bombarding particles”, and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1954 “In recognition of his distinguished work on nuclear and atomic physics”.
His Jacksonian Professorship was interrupted by the war, and he took up the appointment of Chief Superintendent at the Air Defence, Research and Development Establishment, Ministry of Supply in 1941, then Director of the Atomic Research Establishment of the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Research plant at Chalk River from 1944-46. After the War he served as Director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell from 1946-58, and thereafter became the first Master of Churchill College, Cambridge in 1959, where he remained until his death in 1967.
His research was instrumental in the development of nuclear power, and the Nobel Prize in 1951 celebrating his ‘splitting the atom’ was just one of many honours bestowed upon him. He was awarded over 20 honorary degrees from institutions around the world, made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1944, Knighted in 1948, created Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1953 and awarded the Order of Merit (OM) in 1957, an Honour restricted to 24 living persons at any one time.
1958 & 1980: Frederick Sanger (1918-2013)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1958
"for his work on the structure of proteins, especially that of insulin"
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1980 (jointly with Walter Gilbert)
"for their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids"
Born in Gloucestershire and educated at Bryanston School, Fred Sanger came to St John’s in 1936, to study Natural Sciences, receiving his BA in 1939. As a conscientious objector during the war, Sanger stayed on in Cambridge to study for a PhD (1944).
After receiving his doctorate, Sanger remained in Cambridge as a Beit Memorial Fellow for Medical Research 1944-51, and thereafter as a member of the external staff of the Medical Research Council until 1983. He was made a Fellow of King’s College in 1954 and an Honorary Fellow there in 1983.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954 and went on to receive two of its highest honours – the Royal Medal in 1969, “In recognition of his pioneer work on the sequence of amino acids in proteins and of nucleotides of ribonucleic acids” and the Copley Medal in 1977, “In recognition of his distinguished work on the chemical structure of proteins and his studies on the sequences of nucleic acids”.
His work into amino acid sequences and protein structures, particularly insulin, garnered him his first Nobel Prize in 1958. His second came just over two decades later, in 1980, for his work in sequencing DNA. He is widely regarded as the father of genomics – his research paving the way for a revolution in the understanding of genetics. He is one of only four people to have been awarded two Nobel prizes, and the only one to have been awarded the prize for Chemistry twice.
His scientific accomplishments were recognised by the Queen on three occasions. A CBE in 1963 was followed, in 1981, by being made a Companion of Honour (CH). In 1986, having previously turned down a Knighthood due to not wanting to be addressed ‘Sir’, he was awarded the Order of Merit (OM), which is restricted to 24 living persons at any one time.
1962: Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (1916-2004)
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 (jointly with Francis Harry Compton Crick and James Dewey Watson)
"for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material"
Maurice Wilkins came up to St John’s in 1935 to read Physics, achieving his BA in 1938. He then moved to the Physics Department at Birmingham University, conducting research into the luminescence of solids for the Ministry of Home Security and Aircraft Production, gaining his PhD in 1940. After this, he spent some time working under another Johnian, Marcus Oliphant, on the separation of uranium isotopes for use in bombs. Shortly after, he continued this research as part of the Manhattan Project in Berkeley, California.
After the war, Wilkins moved to Scotland to become a Lecturer in Physics at St Andrews University, moving after one year to King’s College London in 1946 to become a member of the newly formed Biophysics Unit of the Medical Research Council. He was Deputy Director of the unit from 1955-1970, and Director from 1970-72. In 1963 he became Professor of Molecular Biology, a position he held until 1970 when he became Professor of Biophysics, and remained as such until his retirement in 1981, having spent over three decades at KCL.
Amongst his awards and honours, Wilkins was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1959. In 1960 he shared the Albert Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association with Crick and Francis. He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1963, an Honorary Fellow here at St John’s in 1972, and was awarded Honorary Doctorates from Glasgow University (1972), Trinity College Dublin (1992) and Birmingham University (1992).
1977: Nevill Francis Mott (1905-1996)
Nobel Prize in Physics 1977 (jointly with Philip Warren Anderson and John Hasbrouck van Vleck)
"for their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems"
Nevill Mott came to St John’s as an undergraduate in 1924 and took his BA in Mathematics in 1927. After a period of research, including a year as Lecturer at the University of Manchester, he returned to Cambridge to become Lecturer in Mathematics and a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College. In 1933 he took up the position of Melville Wills Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Bristol, a position he held for fifteen years until being named Henry Overton Wills Professor of Physics and Director of the Wills Laboratory, still at Bristol. In 1954, he returned again to Cambridge, now as Cavendish Professor of Physics, and held the chair until 1971, a period which also saw him serve as Master of Gonville and Caius (1959-66).
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1936, he went on to receive many of its top awards: Hughes Medal in 1936 “For his fertile application of the principles of quantum theory to many branches of physics, especially in the fields of nuclear and collision theory, in the theory of metals and in the theory of photographic emulsions”; Royal Medal “In recognition of his eminent work in the field of quantum theory and particularly in the theory of metals” and Bakerian Lecture “Dislocations, plastic flow and creep in metals” in 1953; and it’s most prestigious award, the Copley Medal, in 1972 “In recognition of his original contributions over a long period to atomic and solid state physics”.
Amongst his other honours, he was Knighted in 1962 and made Companion of Honour in 1995. He was awarded the Faraday Medal by the Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1973. He was elected Honorary Fellow here at St John’s in 1964, and was also an Honorary Fellow of Darwin College (1977) and Imperial College, London (1978).
1979: Abdus Salam (1926-1996)
Nobel Prize in Physics 1979 (jointly with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg)
"for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current"
Abdus Salam came to St John’s in 1946 to study Physics, gaining his BA in 1948 and PhD 1952, having previously studied at the Punjab University for a BA and MA (1944 and 1946 respectively). He was made a Research Fellow at St John’s in 1951 (while also being Professor of Mathematics at Government College, Lahore) and became a Teaching Fellow in 1954 whilst lecturing in Mathematics for the University. He left Cambridge in 1957 to join Imperial College, London, as Professor of Theoretical Physics, a post he held over 30 years, while also serving as founding Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste from 1964.
As scientific advisor to the Government of Pakistan, he was at the forefront of scientific advancement – promoting and developing the research infrastructure of the country as well as making significant contributions to theoretical physics via his own work. He was the founding Director of the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission and played an important role in Pakistan’s development of nuclear energy. He was associated with many of the major developments in particle physics, including grand unified theory, supersymmetry and electroweak theory, the latter of which garnering him his Nobel Prize.
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1959, he, like many of the other Johnian Nobel Laureates, went on to reap many of its top honours: Hughes Medal in 1964, Royal Medal in 1978, Bakerian Lecture in 1985 and the Copley Medal in 1990. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of St John’s in 1972. In 1979 he was awarded Pakistan’s highest honour, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, and made an Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) in 1989.
1979: Allan Cormack (1924-1998)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1979 (jointly with Godfrey N Hounsfield)
"for the development of computer assisted tomography"
Born and raised in South Africa, Allan Cormack came to St John’s in 1947 to read for a PhD after obtaining his BSc and MSc degrees from the University of Cape Town (1944 & 1945 respectively). He did not complete his doctoral studies however, and left Cambridge in 1950 to take up a Lectureship at his alma mater, Cape Town.
After six years at Cape Town and a year as a Research Fellow at Harvard (1956-57) he joined Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he would remain for the rest of his career: Assistant Professor 1957-60; Associate Professor 1960-64; Professor of Physics 1964-80; University Professor 1980-94, finally culminating in an Emeritus Professorship, from 1994.
Primarily a nuclear physicist, his side interest in Tomography led to him developing the theoretical mathematics of CT scanning (also known as a CAT scan). Two papers published in the Journal of Applied Physics in 1963 and 1964 garnered little attention, and it wasn’t until Godfrey Hounsfield and his colleagues at the EMI Central Research Laboratories in London built and tested the first CT scanner in 1971, that his calculations were fully applied. The CT scan takes a series of x-rays from different angles, which are then digitally compiled into a 3D image, proving invaluable in medical diagnostics – the first clinical use being a brain scan of a patient with a suspected brain tumour.
Cormack was posthumously awarded South Africa’s Order of Mapungubwe (Gold) in 2002, its inaugural year, for his outstanding scientific achievements and co-inventing the CAT scan.
2007: Eric Stark Maskin (1950-)
The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2007 (jointly with Leonid Hurwicz and Roger B Myerson)
"for having laid the foundations of mechanism design theory".
Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Eric Maskin went on to Harvard to study Mathematics, gaining his AB in 1972, AM in 1974 and PhD in 1976. After this he came to Cambridge to take up a yearlong Research Fellowship at Jesus College, and then spent 7 years at MIT before returning to his alma mater to become Professor of Economics in 1985.
In 2000 he moved to Princeton to become the Albert O Hirschman Professor of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study and in 2012 returned, again, to Harvard as Adams University Professor.
His first connection to St John’s came in 1987, when he was an Overseas Visiting Fellow; he was later made an Honorary Fellow in 2004. He has held honorary and visiting positions all over the world from his native US to the Far East, and boasts a similarly international array of awards, medals and honorary degrees which reflect the impact his work on economic theory has made.
2020: Roger Penrose (1931-)
Nobel Prize in Physics 2020
“for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”
Born in Colchester, Roger Penrose came to St John’s in 1952, having completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematics at University College London, to read for a PhD in Algebraic Geometry. This was awarded in 1957, and he stayed three further years as a Title A Fellow.
After leaving St John’s, he was subsequently a NATO Research Fellow at Princeton University and Syracuse University, a Research Associate at King's College London, and a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Texas, before spending the best part of a decade at Birkbeck College, London, first as Reader from 1964-66, then Professor of Applied Mathematics from 1966-73. From London, he moved to the University of Oxford, as Fellow of Wadham College and Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics from 1973-98, both of which positions he continues to hold in emeritus.
Throughout his career, he has made numerous contributions to the mathematical physics of general relativity and cosmology, being especially well known for his 1974 discovery of Penrose tilings, which are formed from two tiles that can only tile the plane aperiodically, and were the first tilings to exhibit fivefold rotational symmetry – one such example can be seen at the entrance to the Working Library.
He has won numerous awards and accolades for his scientific brilliance: sharing both the Royal Astronomical Society’s Eddington Medal in 1975 and the Wolf Foundation Prize for Physics in 1988 with Stephen Hawking. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1972, and went on to win its two most prestigious awards: The Royal Medal in 1985 “for his fundamental contributions to the theory of gravitational collapse and to other geometric aspects of theoretical physic”, and the Copley Medal in 2008 “for his beautiful and original insights into many areas of mathematics and mathematical physics. Sir Roger has made outstanding contributions to general relativity theory and cosmology, most notably for his work on black holes and the Big Bang”. He was Knighted by the Queen in 1994 and, in 2000, admitted into the Order of Merit, an Honour restricted to 24 living persons at any one time, and awarded by personal gift of the Queen.