University of Oxford
#11 Overall Influence

University of Oxford

Collegiate research university in Oxford, England

By James Barham, PhD

The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, which affords it an aura of awe and respect that no amount of money can buy.

If Cambridge was preeminent in the analytical philosophy tradition during the twentieth century, Oxford was far more important for the Scholastic philosophical tradition during the High Middle Ages. For example, the great Scottish metaphysician John Duns Scotus (his name means, roughly, “John, of the village of Duns, in Scotland”) was in residence here during the 1290s, and again briefly between 1302 and 1304, between stays at the University of Paris. He fell out of favor in Paris, though, ending his days in Cologne.

Another towering medieval thinker, the Franciscan priest William of Ockham (who takes his surname from a town in Surrey, south of London), was a student and briefly a teacher at Oxford during the early years of the fourteenth century, before removing to the Franciscan house in London, and finally being summoned to the papal court in Avignon to defend himself against a charge of heterodoxy. He eventually fled to the court of Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV of Bavaria, where he died in 1347. Ockham is best known today as the author of the “parsimony principle,” which states that in an explanation “entities ought not to be multiplied beyond necessity” (Ockham’s razor).

Among others whom either studied or taught at Oxford, or both, during the intellectually fertile thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a large number of less well-known but still quite significant figures—including:

  • William of Sherwood
  • Roger Bacon
  • William Grosseteste
  • Walter Burley
  • Thomas Bradwardine
  • William Heytesbury
  • Richard Swineshead
  • John Wyclif
  • Paul of Venice

Jumping ahead several centuries, we still find a large number of British luminaries passing through Oxford, including:

  • Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor who lost his head opposing the king’s split with Rome
  • Philosophers, Thomas Hobbes & John Locke
  • Mathematician, physicist, and microscopist, Robert Hooke
  • Humanist scholar and author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
  • Physician, antiquarian, and author of Religio Medici, Thomas Browne
  • Metaphysical poet, John Donne
  • Architect, Christopher Wren
  • Philosopher and father of economics, Adam Smith
  • Anglican bishop and philosopher, Joseph Butler
  • Philologist and originator of the Indo-European language family hypothesis, William Jones
  • Historian and author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
  • Poet, novelist, biographer, lexicographer, and raconteur, Samuel Johnson
  • Essayists, Joseph Addison & Richard Steele
  • Explorer and naturalist, Joseph Banks
  • Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Anglican-turned-Catholic religious philosopher and man of letters, author of Apologia pro vita sua, John Henry Newman
  • Poet and critic, author of “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold
  • Novelist, social thinker, and promoter of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris
  • Poet, playwright, and satirist, Oscar Wilde

In the twentieth century, as well, Oxford has been home to a large constellation of some of the brightest stars in the natural sciences, the humanities, and other fields. For example, the university’s Nobel Prize – winners in physics include Erwin Schrödinger and Anthony Leggett, while among Oxford-connected Chemistry Prize – winners are such notables as Frederick Soddy, Linus Pauling, Cyril Hinshelwood, and Dorothy Hodgkin.

The great cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who now lies buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Isaac Newton, did his undergraduate work here.

In physiology or medicine, we may mention:

  • Charles Sherrington
  • Howard Florey
  • George Beadle
  • Severo Ochoa
  • Peter Medawar
  • John Eccles
  • Niko Tinbergen
  • Paul Nurse
  • Sydney Brenner
  • Peter Ratcliffe

Oxford-connected Nobelists in economics include:

  • John Hicks
  • Gunnar Myrdal
  • Robert Solow
  • Amartya Sen
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Michael Spence

A number of Nobel Prize – winners in literature, including the poet T.S. Eliot and the novelists John Galsworthy, William Golding, and V.S. Naipaul, all studied at Oxford.

Other notable twentieth-century Oxonians include:

  • Astronomer, Edwin Hubble
  • Philosophers, Michael Dummett, Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, David K. Lewis, Thomas Nagel, & David Chalmers
  • Anthropologists, E.E. Evans-Pritchard & Mary Douglas
  • Sociologist, Ernest Gellner
  • Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins
  • Poets, W.H. Auden & Philip Larkin
  • Author of the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Influential spy novelist, John le Carré
  • Beloved children’s author, Theodor Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”)
  • Famed Christian apologist and children’s writer, author of the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis
  • Philologist, medievalist, and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Journalist & controversialist, Christopher Hitchens
  • Film director, Terrence Malick
  • Actors Richard Burton, Hugh Grant, Kate Beckinsale, Rowan Atkinson, and Emma Watson

However, the area in which Oxford really stands out is politics. All of the following presidents, prime ministers, and/or heads of state (among many others) attended Oxford:

  • Indira Gandhi (India)
  • Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Ceylon/Sri Lanka)
  • Eric Williams (Trinidad and Tobago)
  • Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan)
  • Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma/Myanmar)
  • King Abdullah II (Jordan)
  • Lester Pearson (Canada)
  • Malcolm Turnbull (Australia)
  • Bill Clinton (USA)
  • William Gladstone (UK)
  • Clement Atlee (UK)
  • Harold Wilson (UK)
  • Margaret Thatcher (UK)
  • Tony Blair (UK)
  • David Cameron (UK)
  • Theresa May (UK)
  • Boris Johnson (UK)

You might say that Oxford is the global prep school for the future leaders of the world!

What is University of Oxford known for?

#4 World Rank
#4 World Rank
Religious Studies
#4 World Rank
Earth Sciences
#5 World Rank
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Political Science
#14 World Rank
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Computer Science
#18 World Rank
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Social Work
#32 World Rank
Criminal Justice
#38 World Rank

Influential People

Who are University of Oxford's Most influential alumni?

University of Oxford's most influential alumni faculty include professors and professionals in the fields of Literature, Religious Studies, and Earth Sciences. University of Oxford’s most academically influential people include Richard Dawkins, Andreas Umland, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author

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Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland

Expert on Russian and Ukrainian history and politics

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J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien

British philologist and author of classic high fantasy works

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J.B.S. Haldane
J.B.S. Haldane

Geneticist and evolutionary biologist

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Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch

Australian-born American media mogul

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Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon

Medieval philosopher and theologian

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W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden

Anglo-American poet

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Sydney Brenner
Sydney Brenner

South African biologist, Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine 2002

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Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

British-American author and journalist

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Dorothy Hodgkin
Dorothy Hodgkin

British chemist

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Peter Medawar
Peter Medawar


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Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth

British cleric and historiographer

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