University of Cambridge
#4 Overall Influence

University of Cambridge

Collegiate public research university in Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

About This School

How does this school stack up?

By James Barham, PhD

Founded in 1209, the University of Cambridge is one of the oldest universities in the world (or, at least, in Europe, not to prejudge the claims of several Islamic institutions to that title).

It was founded only a little more than a century after the University of Bologna (1088) and the University of Oxford (1096) – which are the oldest and second-oldest universities in Europe – and about half a century after the University of Paris (1150). Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, after Oxford.

With more than 800 years of continuous operation, Cambridge has been home to a great many luminaries of the academic firmament during this long expanse of time. Without a doubt, the brightest of these by far was Isaac Newton, who most would say is the greatest scientist who ever lived (a minority holds out for Albert Einstein). Newton was mostly in residence at Cambridge from 1661 until 1706, first as a student and then a professor, attaining the distinctions of Fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the university.

If no eminent thinker other than Newton had ever dwelled there, Cambridge would still have a considerable claim to academic eminence – but, of course, that is far from the case.

For example, the great English classicist Richard Bentley – only half a generation younger than Newton – both studied and taught there. Earlier in the seventeenth century, Cambridge had been home to the essayist and philosopher, Francis Bacon, as well as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, while Shakespeare’s rival and sometime collaborator, the playwright (and possible secret agent) Christopher Marlowe, received his education here. Overlapping with Newton was also a highly influential group of philosophers known collectively as the “Cambridge Platonists,” who included most notably Ralph Cudworth and Henry More, as well as several other thinkers of some repute. Moreover, two of the greatest English poets of all time, John Donne and John Milton, also studied at Cambridge during the remarkable seventeenth century.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cambridge was home to:

  • English classicist, Richard Porson
  • English Romantic poets, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, & Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Early computer pioneer, Charles Babbage
  • Noted physician, naturalist, and early proponent of evolution, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather)
  • Anglican minister and important contributor to political economy and demographics, Thomas Malthus
  • World-famous naturalist and originator of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Charles Darwin
  • Philosopher-scientist William Whewell
  • Folklorist and author of The Golden Bough, J.G. Frazer
  • Beloved British poet, Alfred Tennyson

Moving to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we find that a total of around 120 Nobel laureates have been connected to Cambridge, some of whom stand among the ranks of highly distinguished scientists crowding into the history books just behind Newton and Einstein. For instance, just among physicists we have:

  • J.W. Strutt (Lord Rayleigh)
  • J.J. Thomson
  • Lawrence Bragg
  • Paul Dirac
  • James Chadwick
  • Pyotr Kapitsa
  • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
  • Abdus Salam
  • Philip Anderson
  • Brian Josephson
  • Neville Mott
  • David Thouless
  • Celebrated Stephen Hawking, who until his recent death occupied Newton’s old chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge

Cambridge-connected Nobel winners in chemistry include:

  • John Kendrew
  • Max Perutz
  • Frederick Sanger
  • Lars Onsager
  • Peter Mitchell
  • Walter Gilbert

In the category of Nobel Prizes for physiology or medicine, we have:

  • Charles Sherrington
  • Albert Szent-Györgyi
  • Howard Florey
  • Hans Krebs
  • James D. Watson
  • Francis Crick
  • Maurice Wilkins
  • André Lwoff
  • Alan Hodgkin
  • Andrew Huxley
  • Sydney Brennerv
  • Elizabeth Blackburn

It was in 1952, in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, that Watson and Crick made the epoch-making discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Among other eminent scholars, perhaps the most influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes, both graduated from Cambridge and taught here for many years.

Another discipline with which the University of Cambridge is intimately connected is philosophy. In fact, the characteristic style of philosophy practiced in English-speaking countries throughout the twentieth century (almost exclusively so, until fairly recently) was born in Cambridge, just after 1900, when G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, in full revolt against the then-reigning British Idealist school, and under the powerful influence of the seminal work in mathematical logic by University of Jena professor, Gottlob Frege, invented the style of philosophical writing we now call “analytical.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s arrival in Cambridge from Vienna in 1911 to study with Russell (at Frege’s suggestion) cemented this tradition, which some now refer to as “Anglo-Austrian” philosophy. While the rival “Continental” tradition (grounded in Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger) has been making inroads in British and American universities for several decades now, the analytical style, on the other hand, has an ever-increasing presence on the Continent today. As a result, Cambridge’s historical importance for the way philosophy is done in the contemporary world is now being acknowledged – and the practice itself emulated – not just in Austria, Scandinavia, and Poland (this happened earlier in the past century), but even in Germany itself, as well as in France, Italy, the rest of central and eastern Europe, and beyond.

Among other distinguished Cambridge – linked scholars, we may mention:

  • Astronomer Edwin Hubble
  • Virtuoso mathematician, philosopher, logician, and computer-science pioneer, Alan Turing
  • Novelist Howard Jacobson
  • Philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead, Georg Henrick von Wright, & Roger Scruton
  • Sociologist Ernest Gellner

Influence Rankings by Discipline

How’s this school influential?

#1 World Rank
Earth Sciences
#1 World Rank
Physics
#2 World Rank
Chemistry
#2 World Rank
Biology
#4 World Rank
History
#4 World Rank
Mathematics
#5 World Rank
Literature
#6 World Rank
Education
#6 World Rank
Philosophy
#6 World Rank
Anthropology
#6 World Rank
Law
#7 World Rank
Computer Science
#7 World Rank
Religious Studies
#8 World Rank
Engineering
#9 World Rank
Economics
#11 World Rank
Medical
#17 World Rank
Criminal Justice
#17 World Rank
Sociology
#18 World Rank
Nursing
#20 World Rank
Psychology
#21 World Rank
Political Science
#22 World Rank
Business
#29 World Rank
Communications
#79 World Rank
Social Work

Influential People

Who are University of Cambridge's Most influential alumni?

University of Cambridge's most influential alumni faculty include professors and professionals in the fields of Earth Sciences, Physics, and Chemistry. University of Cambridge’s most academically influential people include Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, and Francis Crick.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

British naturalist, author of "On the origin of species, by means of natural selection"

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James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell

Scottish physicist

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Francis Crick
Francis Crick

British molecular biologist, biophysicist, neuroscientist; co-discoverer of the structure of DNA

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Milton Friedman
Milton Friedman

American economist, statistician, and writer

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Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon

English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, and author

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Karl Popper
Karl Popper

Austrian-British philosopher of science

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Alan Turing
Alan Turing

British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist

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Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr

Danish physicist

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Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

British Indian novelist and essayist

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Lord Byron
Lord Byron

English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement

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Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov

Russian-American novelist, lepidopterist, professor

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Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin

British chemist, biophysicist, and X-ray crystallographer

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