When it comes to Oxford and Cambridge, the ancient universities of England, Cambridge has more of a reputation for science. This is understandable when The Other Places boasts such notable alumni as Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. Nevertheless, Oxford has been at the centre of many scientific achievements which have had enormous impact on the world around us.
When considering Oxford’s history of scientific achievement, the obvious place to start is the Museum of the History of Science. Located next to the Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street, the Museum of the History of Science contains many scientific treasures. Originally the site of the Ashmolean Museum, it gained its current identity in 1925. It remains the world’s oldest purpose-built museum. The objects in the collection include astrolabes, manuscripts, and early cameras. Most notably is the Einstein Blackboard. The blackboard was used by Einstein during the second of his three Rhodes Lectures. The lecture, delivered in German, explained current thinking on cosmology, and the blackboard contains complex mathematical equations which estimate the density of matter in the universe.
It is not just influential museums which live in this city. Oxford claims a central role in the development of science itself. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon made his home at Oxford’s Franciscan Order. Whilst there, he promoted the empirical methods of Ibn al-Haytham and applied them to observations of Aristotle. This experimentation is often credited for laying the groundwork of the scientific method still in use today. There is a plaque to Bacon in the Westgate centre, acknowledging that the “most wonderful doctor who, by experimental method extended marvellously the realm of science” lived thereabouts.
The Museum of the History of Science is not the only important scientific museum in Oxford. The Natural History Museum is an active research institution, especially into evolution and animal origins. The museum is home to the only near-complete Dodo skeleton in the world and was home to the “Great Debate” of 1860 in which the bishop Samuel Wilberforce and biologist Thomas Huxley debated Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Dodos and evolution are not the only points of scientific intrigue to come out of the Natural History Museum. After completing her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Oxford (and a PhD at the Other Place) Dorothy Crawford Hodgkin returned to Oxford to pursue a research fellowship in Chemical Crystallography (at the time, the chemistry department was housed in the Natural History Museum, it now sits proudly next door). During this time, Hodgkin worked to study and understand the chemical structures of biochemical compounds. It was her work to understand the structure of penicillin which won her the Nobel Prize in 1964.
Speaking of chemistry, if you’re like me then there isn’t much you remember from your GCSE chemistry course. A notable exception is Boyle’s Law. This law, named for Robert Boyle, states that the pressure and volume of gas have an inverse relationship. Though never studying at the University, Boyle developed his eponymous law whilst renting a room above an apothecary on a street now occupied by University College, Oxford.
Perhaps the other law I recall from my GCSE days is Hooke’s Law, which states that the force needed to compress a spring is equal to the force it emits when released. This law is named for yet another Oxonian Robert of the 17th century: Robert Hooke. An alumnus of Christ Church College, where he obtained a scholarship for joining the choir, Hooke was dubbed “England’s Leonardo” by Allan Chapman. Whilst studying in Oxford, Hook befriended the noted architect and famous royalist, Christopher Wren. Wren is most famous for designing St. Paul’s Cathedral (and much of London) after the great fire. Wren, Hooke, and Boyle were the most famous members of the Wadham Club, founded by John Wilkins. Wilkins was the warden of Wadham College between 1648 and 1659 and founded the Wadham Club to promote “experimental philosophy” during his tenure. Christopher Wren took the ideals of this society and, along with Robert Boyle, founded the Royal Society in 1660. The Royal Society was granted its Royal Charter in 1662 and remains the oldest national science academy in the world.
Oxford’s scientific achievements continue to this day, as exemplified by one of the city’s greatest prides, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert. Sarah Gilbert is Saïd Professor of Vaccinology, specialising in developing vaccines against influenza and emerging viruses. Most notably, and the achievement for which she was awarded her damehood, Professor Gilbert lead the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. She is also the co-founder of Vaccitech, a spin-out biotechnology company based out of the Oxford Science Park which seeks to develop vaccines against diseases such as cancer, hepatitis B, and HPV.
Vaccitech is not the only scientific spin-out of Oxford University. Indeed, the 2021 University Spin Out Report named Oxford as the best university in the UK for spin-outs. Many of these continue to be based in the Oxford Science Park, or the nearby Heyworth Labs. Notable start-ups include MoA Technology, which creates non-harmful pesticides, quantum computing start-up Quantum Dice, and CyanoCapture, which uses cyanobacteria to sequester carbon dioxide. It is not only Oxford spin-outs which seek to make Oxford their home. University of Dundee spin-out Exscientia, which uses AI for drug discovery, chose to make the Oxford science park its home. It is a move which has clearly paid off for them as they recently raised $510 million in an IPO. With more of a focus on entrepreneurship than ever before, combined with a world-class research environment, who knows what discoveries will emerge from Oxford next.
- Adam Johnson, St. Catherine’s College alumnus