Leiden University
#29 Overall Influence

Leiden University

University in Leiden, Netherlands

By James Barham, PhD

Leiden University, though a relative latecomer to the European scene, is the oldest university in what is now the Netherlands, and—to put things in proper perspective—is more than 50 years older than Harvard, he oldest university in the US. In other words, from an international perspective, it is quite a venerable institution.

Leiden University was founded by William I, Prince of Orange (also known as “William the Silent”), the leader of the Dutch Revolt against Spanish Habsburg rule over the Low Countries. The northern, heavily Protestant portion of the Low Countries, corresponding roughly to the modern Netherlands, broke away and gained its independence as the United Provinces in 1581. (The Dutch-speaking, but heavily Catholic, southern provinces of Antwerp, Brabant, and Flanders remained under foreign rule for two more centuries.)

It is said that William chose to place the first university on independent Dutch soil in Leiden to reward that city for the heroic defense it had mounted the previous year against a Spanish attack.

The successful Dutch Revolt inaugurated what is known to historians as the Dutch Golden Age, during which the Netherlands, despite its small size, became one of the most prosperous and culturally most advanced nations in Europe. Leiden University played a leading role in the production of this “embarrassment of riches”—to quote the title a famous study of the period by the noted British historian, Simon Schama.

Among the many eminent humanist scholars who were attracted to Leiden already during the sixteenth century, we may mention:

  • Philologist, philosopher, and champion of the revival of ancient skepticism, Justus Lipsius
  • Great philologist and pioneer of the study of Middle Eastern languages and history, Joseph Justus Scaliger
  • dissident Protestant theologian, Jacobus Arminius (Jakob Hermanszoon), founder of Arminianism

During the seventeenth century, Leiden University was home to such intellectual giants as:

  • Exiled Frenchman, René Descartes, the father of the modern era in philosophy
  • Distinguished classical scholar and theologian, Gerardus Vossius (Gerrit Janszoon Vos)
  • English physician, antiquarian, and man of letters, Thomas Browne
  • Highly influential political philosopher and proponent of natural law, Hugo Grotius (Huig de Groot)
  • Great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza
  • Internationally renowned physicist, mathematician, and astronomer, Christiaan Huygens
  • medical scientist hailed as the “Dutch Hippocrates,” Herman Boerhaave

The great Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn)—one of the most extraordinary artists of all time—studied for a short time at Leiden when a young boy of 14.

During the eighteenth century, Leiden-connected scholars include:

  • Boerhaave’s Swiss-German pupil, the physiologist and poet, Albrecht von Haller, sometimes known as the “father of physiology”
  • Physicist, Pieter van Musschenbroek
  • German-born, turned–French philosopher, infamous atheist, and author of the scandalous Système de la nature, the Baron d’Holbach (Paul-Henri Thiry, né Paul Heinrich Dietrich)
  • English novelist and satirist, Henry Fielding
  • Famous Dutch philosophe and pioneering philosopher of aesthetics, François Hemsterhuis

Finally, in the twentieth century, Leiden University has been associated with some 16 Nobel Prize laureates, including:


  • Johannes Diderik van der Waals
  • Hendrik Antoon Lorentz
  • Pieter Zeeman
  • Enrico Fermi
  • Heike Kamerlingh Onnes


  • Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff—chemistry

Physiology or Medicine

  • Niels Jerne
  • Willem Einthoven
  • Niko Tinbergen
  • Albert Szent-Györgyi

The Fields Medalist, Manjul Bhargava, also taught here for a time.

Other famous Leiden-connected people not covered above include:

  • Sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams
  • Twentieth-century Austrian physicist, Paul Ehrenfest
  • Contemporary Somali-born, former Dutch politician, and international women’s rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

What is Leiden University known for?

#9 World Rank
#15 World Rank
#15 World Rank
#21 World Rank
#24 World Rank
Earth Sciences
#27 World Rank
#28 World Rank
#31 World Rank
#47 World Rank
#50 World Rank
Religious Studies
#52 World Rank
Computer Science
#57 World Rank
#61 World Rank
#63 World Rank
#69 World Rank
#85 World Rank
#86 World Rank
#100 World Rank
Political Science
#122 World Rank
#233 World Rank
Criminal Justice
#789 World Rank

Influential People

Who are Leiden University's Most influential alumni?

Leiden University's most influential alumni faculty include professors and professionals in the fields of Physics, Law, and Mathematics. Leiden University’s most academically influential people include René Descartes, Enrico Fermi, and James Hutton.

René Descartes
René Descartes

French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

view profile
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi

Italian physicist

view profile
James Hutton
James Hutton

Scottish geologist, physician, chemical manufacturer, naturalist, and experimental agriculturalist

view profile
Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding

English novelist and dramatist

view profile
Hugo de Vries
Hugo de Vries

Dutch botanist

view profile
Christiaan Huygens
Christiaan Huygens

Dutch mathematician and natural philosopher

view profile
William III
William III

William of Orange; King of England, Scotland and Ireland

view profile

Dutch painter and etcher

view profile
Hugo Grotius
Hugo Grotius

Dutch jurist and scholar

view profile
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams

6th president of the United States

view profile
Hendrik Lorentz
Hendrik Lorentz

Dutch physicist

view profile
Thomas Browne
Thomas Browne

English polymath

view profile