5 of the greatest British Scientists (and how they changed the world)

British science has had a huge global impact. From computer science to the double helix, the world would be a very different place without British innovation.

Over the past few centuries, Britain has been a beacon of scientific excellence. From Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking to Richard Dawkins, our best scientists are household names.

Today, British science is still in a good place, producing 11.6% of the world’s citations and 15.9% of the most highly-cited articles. And though the UK comprises only 0.9% of the global population, it provides 4.1% of the world’s researchers. But British science goes far beyond these remarkable numbers. British scientists have, throughout history, changed the world.

To celebrate British Science Week, we look at five pioneers of science who made discoveries that changed the world.

1. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

As the only British woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, it’s perhaps not surprising to see Dorothy Hodgkin’s name on a list of the greatest British scientists. Though born in Egypt, she was raised and educated in the UK.

Hodgkin’s prolific career was full of incredible scientific discoveries. In 1945, she discovered the atomic structure of penicillin. In 1954, she published work discovering the structure of vitamin B12. This research, produced in collaboration with American chemist Ken Trueblood, led to Hodgkin being awarded a Nobel Prize for “her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”

Hodgkin went on to reveal the structure of insulin, a project she’d been working on for decades. Incredibly, she worked throughout her life suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Dorothy Hodgkin — a true British great.

2. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)

Another Nobel Prize winner, this time in 1945, Alexander Fleming — like Dorothy Hodgkin — had an impact that would transcend science. Born in Ayrshire in 1881, Fleming’s great discovery came when he was studying influenza in 1928 — almost a decade after returning from service in the First World War.

He noticed that mould had started to develop on staphylococci culture dishes which had accidentally been left out. This mould had created an immunity circle around itself, resisting bacteria. Fleming named this substance penicillin.

Though it wasn’t Fleming who translated this discovery into the drugs that fight off bacterial infections we use today (that honour went to the US drug industry), his groundbreaking findings led the way in reducing the impact of bacterial infections for millions of people globally (he also went on to write highly influential papers on immunology, chemotherapy and bacteriology). A true British great.

3. Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Sir Isaac Newton is not just one of the great British scientists, but he’s also one of the most prominent scientists ever to have walked this planet. A true polymath, Newton was an expert mathematician, physicist, astronomer and alchemist.

Newton is often remembered most for his eureka moment under a tree, an epiphany that formed the basis of his book Principia. More than just a thesis, Principia highlighted the universal laws of gravity which are still relevant, cited and form the basis of research today. Newton also formulated his theory of colour, which attributed colour as a property of light.

When paired with his mathematical breakthroughs, Newton’s work has formed the basis of hundreds of years of scientific discovery — giving us the empirical tools to compare apples with apples. Isaac Newton is one of the first titans of British science.

4. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Many people cite another British great, Alan Turing, as the creator of the computer. But without the work of Ada Lovelace, it might not have been possible. In the socially conservative Victorian era, Lovelace was years ahead of her time.

Many of us think of computers as a relatively recent invention. The idea that computing goes back to 1840 seems unlikely. But before Apple and Microsoft, before the Harvard Mark I, Ada Lovelace had an incredible understanding of computing. An understanding that was not only unparalleled but went under-appreciated for more than a century — only coming back to the fore in the 1950s.

What makes her understanding of computing more incredible is that she was working at a time when few women had access to education. Despite being faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, she overcame society’s obstacles to inspire some of the greatest computer scientists of the 20th century.

Considered to be the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was a true Victorian visionary.

5. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Many consider Rosalind Franklin’s emission from the rollcall of Nobel Prize winners as a blemish on the great prize’s record. Franklin, a British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, made hugely important and influential contributions to our understanding of the molecular structures of DNA.

Through her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, we discovered the DNA double helix. The discovery of this structure allowed scientists to understand how genetic information is passed between parents and their offspring.

Despite the importance of her work, she’s still often overlooked for three reasons. Firstly, she died of ovarian cancer at young age. Secondly, her work was appropriated by the Cambridge University scientists James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who published a series of articles that led to the trio picking up a Nobel Prize.

The final reason, of course, was her gender. Women back in the 1950s were just not taken seriously. Wilkins, who would later win the Nobel Prize by piggybacking on Franklin’s research, initially thought that she was a lab assistant rather than the head of her own project.

Rosalind Franklin is undoubtedly on the best British scientists. She is also a frank reminder of the struggles women had to endure just to have their work acknowledged and respected. The same can be said of Ada Lovelace.

If there’s one thing to be understood during British Science Week, it’s to make sure that the women working in science today aren’t forgotten, ignored or underappreciated.

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs.
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