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Nobel Prize winners


The University has always been at the forefront of research and eight of our alumni and staff have been recognised with Nobel Prizes.


From revealing the structure of DNA to developing new treatments for heart disease and cancer, their research has made an impact worldwide.


For further information on the prizewinners below, visit


Francis Aston


Sir Norman Haworth


Lord Robert Cecil


Sir Peter Medawar


Maurice Wilkins


Sir John Vane


Sir Paul Nurse


Professor Peter Bullock


Francis Aston


Francis Aston (BSc Applied/Pure Science 1910; Dsc Applied/Pure Science 1914) was presented with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1922.

He invented the mass spectroscope to separate isotopes of neon by taking advantage of their slight differences in mass. He repeated the experiments with other elements and was able to show that, when expressed as atomic weight units, their masses could be expressed in whole numbers. This principle was of vital importance in the eventual derivation of the structure of the atomic nucleus.

During a scholarship at the University of Birmingham Francis discovered the phenomenon in discharge tubes known as the Aston Dark Space.

In 1921 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded the Society's Hughes Medal in the same year he received the Nobel Prize.

He received many awards for his work including the Royal medal, the John Scott and the Paterno medals and was the author of Isotypes and Structural Units of the Material Universe.


Sir Norman Haworth


Sir Norman Haworth received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1937 for his investigations into carbohydrates and vitamin C.

He was Professor and Director of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham from 1925 until 1948, becoming Dean of the Faculty of Science and acting as Vice-Principal during 1947-1948.

In his retirement, Sir Norman served on many boards and committees and represented the Royal Society at the Seventh Pacific Science Congress in New Zealand.

Sir Norman wrote numerous scientific papers and contributed to Advances in Carbohydrate Chemistry as well as writing his own book The Constitution of Sugars.

His research into carbohydrates defined the basic features of starch, cellulose, glycogen, inulin and xylan molecules. His work also helped towards solving problems with bacterial polysaccharides.

Sir Norman held the post of President of the Chemical Society, and Fellow, and Vice-President of the Royal Society. He was also a Longstaff Medallist (Chemical Society), Davy Medallist (Royal Society) and Royal Medallist.


Lord Robert Cecil


Lord Robert Cecil’s career brought him many honours including being elected as chancellor of the University of Birmingham (1918-1944) and most significantly receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937 for his services to the League of Nations as an architect whilst at Birmingham.

Cecil was a well known lawyer, politician and diplomat in the United Kingdom.

He studied law at University College, Oxford, where he became a well known debater. In 1887, he was admitted to the Bar (permitted to practice as a barrister).

From 1887-1906, Cecil practised civil law. On 15 June 1899, he was appointed as a Queen’s Counsel. He also collaborated in writing a book entitled Principles of Commercial Law.

At the 1906 general election, Cecil was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament representing Marylebone East. In 1911 he won a by-election in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, as an Independent Conservative and served as its MP until 1923.

When the Conservatives returned to power at the October 1924 general election, Cecil became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.


Sir Peter Medawar


Sir Peter Medawar received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1960 for discovering acquired immunological tolerance.

After studying Zoology and working in a number of positions at different colleges, Sir Peter joined Birmingham as Mason Professor of Zoology. He went on to become the Director of the National Institute for Medical Research.

Sir Peter’s research was around tissue culture and why skin from one human being will not form a permanent graft on the skin of another person. He spent many years researching and analysing this phenomenon of tolerance and transplantation immunity.

His work on the subject led him to being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, which awarded him the Royal Medal in 1959. In the same year, he was Reith Lecturer for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

He has been elected a Foreign Member of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.


Maurice Wilkins


Maurice Wilkins (PhD Physics 1940; DSc Physics 1992) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for his work in the discovery of the structure of DNA and its importance in transferring information in living material.

While Francis Crick and James Watson, who are also Nobel Laureates, are more famously associated with the discovery, it was Maurice’s x-ray diffraction studies that led the four scientists (including Rosalind Franklin) to derive the molecular structure.

As a Research Assistant at the University of Birmingham, Maurice used his studies in the luminescence of solids and the theory of phosphorescence to help the war effort, particularly with the improvement of cathode-ray tube screens for radar.

Later, his work on uranium isotopes led him to California where he worked on the Manhattan Project on the development of the atomic bomb, although he went on to become involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Maurice was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1959 and received a CBE in 1962.


Sir John Vane


Sir John R Vane (BSc Chemistry, 1947; Dsc Chemistry, 1984) was a pharmacologist whose work with aspirin and the prostaglandin group of biochemical compounds earned him a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1982.

Sir John’s discovery of prostacyclin and the behaviour of anti-inflammatory compounds such as aspirin in blocking the formation of prostaglandins and thromboxanes led to the development of new treatments for heart disease and new drugs to relieve pain, inflammation and blood pressure.

It was the experimental side of science that led to his development of the cascade superfusion bioassay technique which was a significant step not only in the research that led to his Nobel Prize but to the wider benefit of biochemistry experimentation.

After 12 years as Group Research and Development Director of the Wellcome Foundation, Sir John established the William Harvey Research Institute at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in 1986.

He was a fellow of the Royal Society, among other fellowships, and received numerous awards including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.


Sir Paul Nurse


Sir Paul Nurse (BSc Biology, 1970) was presented with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 2001 for his seminal discoveries at the molecular level of cell cycles.

His studies and management of research teams have led to new treatments and medicines for cancer. His postgraduate experiments on yeast led to the discovery of the gene that controls cell division.

After doing much of his ground-breaking research in the 1980s, he joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) and became its Director General and Head of Cell Cycle Laboratory.


Sir Paul later headed up the world’s largest volunteer-supported cancer research organisation Cancer Research UK, when ICRF and the Cancer Research Fund joined forces.

He has won many awards, including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society and a foreign associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences.

In 2003, Sir Paul moved to the United States to become President of The Rockefeller University.


Professor Peter Bullock


Professor Peter Bullock’s (BA Geography, 1958) advocacy of the need to treat soil as a sustainable resource led to his appointment to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and subsequent share in it being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

IPCC’s award demonstrated the role played by soil in the earth’s ecosystem and the impact of climate change on land degradation. The role that Bullock played in this project has spread greater knowledge about man-made climate change and laid the foundations for counteracting such change.

Professor Bullock joined the Soil Survey of England and Wales (SSEW) as a surveyor after graduating from Birmingham. He then went on to complete a masters in agricultural chemistry at the University of Leeds.

He became a world expert in soil micromorphology after taking the post as head of the mineralogy section of the SSEW.

After being appointed as director of the Soil Survey and Land Research Centre in 1986, his involvement in national and international scientific and advisory bodies grew. 



Nobel Prize: Sir Francis Aston. Picture courtesy of the Emilio Segre Visual Archive

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