University of St Andrews
#52 Overall Influence

University of St Andrews

University in St Andrews, Fife, Scotland

About This School

How does this school stack up?

By James Barham, PhD

The University of St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland, and the third-oldest in the UK—and, thus, in the English-speaking world. The university has an interesting history.

It was founded by a group of Scottish-born Augustinian monks with the academic title of magister (“Master”), who been forced to migrate to the University of Paris after having been drummed out of Oxford and Cambridge by war between England and Scotland. Unfortunately, these events occurred during the Western Schism of the Church, and the Scottish magistri now found themselves on the losing side of a second political struggle—this one between the rival papal courts at Rome and Avignon.

The learned Scotsmen then dreamed up an original way out of their difficulties. They would found a brand-new university—the first one—on their own native soil. They chose St Andrews (northeast of Edinburgh, not far from Dundee) as the site for the new university, both because it was the seat of Scotland’s most important bishopric and because a thriving monastery already existed there.

The magistri began teaching in St Andrews in 1410, but did not obtain official recognition from Pope Benedict XIII (in Avignon) until three years later. In this way, 1413 has come to be considered the date of the official founding of the university.

Over the course of the next several centuries, numerous illustrious names are associated with St Andrews. Among the most significant, we may mention, in the early sixteenth-century,

  • Poet William Dunbar, who wrote both in English and in Lowland Scots (not to be confused with Scots Gaelic)

In the later sixteenth century,

  • Christian Reformer and founder of Presbyterianism, John Knox

In the seventeenth century,

  • Mathematician and inventor of logarithms, John Napier

In the late eighteenth century,

  • Lawyer and American Declaration of Independence signer, James Wilson
  • Physician and inventor of vaccination, Edward Jenner

And, in the nineteenth century, the philosopher, James Frederick Ferrier.

In spite of the foregoing very honorable roll call, Samuel Johnson reports that when he visited the university in the latter part of the eighteenth century, he found it to be in a sad state of decline, with fewer than 100 students.

St Andrews’s academic revival began toward the end of the nineteenth century, as a result of the decision taken at that time to expand the hitherto Classics-based curriculum to encompass modern languages and the natural sciences. It was also decided around this time to admit women as students on an equal basis with men. In 1894, Agnes Forbes Blackadder was the first woman to receive a bachelor’s degree from St Andrews.

From the middle of the nineteenth century on, the university began once again to enjoy an international reputation, which was furthered by the election of a galaxy of internationally celebrated individuals to the post of Rector, including:

  • Eminent philosopher John Stuart Mill
  • Scottish-born, naturalized-American industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie
  • Playwright and creator of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
  • Nobel Prize–winning poet and storyteller, Rudyard Kipling
  • Norwegian polar explorer and Nobel Peace Prize–winner, Fridtjof Nansen
  • South African philosopher-statesman, Jan Smuts

More recently, one of the most distinguished of St Andrews’s faculty members for over 30 years was the neo-Thomist philosopher John Haldane, a leading light of the new philosophical tendency known as “analytical Thomism.” Haldane also ran the university’s Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs for many years until his departure from St Andrews in 2015.

Among the international roster of distinguished philosophers working at St Andrews today, we may also mention the Brazilian-born logician and historian of medieval logic, Caratina Dutilh Novaẽs.

Turning to the natural sciences, the following professors are particularly noteworthy:

  • Astronomer, James Gregory, who in 1962 designed what remains the largest optical telescope in operation in the UK
  • Pharmacologist James W. Black, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine
  • Mathematical physicist, Michael Berry

Other famous St Andrews names include the folklorist Andrew Lang; the novelists James A. Michener and Fay Weldon; Forbes magazine founder, B.C. Forbes; and the actors Ian McDiarmid and John Cleese.

Influence Rankings by Discipline

How’s this school influential?

#24 World Rank
Literature
#35 World Rank
Education
#41 World Rank
Law
#46 World Rank
History
#49 World Rank
Medical
#52 World Rank
Physics
#60 World Rank
Chemistry
#63 World Rank
Nursing
#65 World Rank
Biology
#68 World Rank
Mathematics
#74 World Rank
Religious Studies
#76 World Rank
Philosophy
#77 World Rank
Computer Science
#122 World Rank
Earth Sciences
#135 World Rank
Economics
#144 World Rank
Engineering
#156 World Rank
Anthropology
#156 World Rank
Business
#158 World Rank
Psychology
#196 World Rank
Sociology
#220 World Rank
Communications
#383 World Rank
Political Science
#427 World Rank
Social Work

Influential People

Who are University of St Andrews's Most influential alumni?

University of St Andrews's most influential alumni faculty include professors and professionals in the fields of Literature, Education, and Law. University of St Andrews’s most academically influential people include John Knox, Ian Stevenson, and Adam Ferguson.

John Knox
John Knox

Scottish clergyman, writer and historian

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Ian Stevenson
Ian Stevenson

Canadian parapsychologist, reincarnation researcher

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Adam Ferguson
Adam Ferguson

Scottish philosopher and historian

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Gavin Douglas
Gavin Douglas

Scottish Churchman, Scholar, Poet

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James Wilson
James Wilson

Justice on the US Supreme Court

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Robert Henryson
Robert Henryson

Scottish makar

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Edward Jenner
Edward Jenner

English physician, scientist and pioneer of vaccination

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William Dunbar
William Dunbar

Poet and civil servant

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John Napier
John Napier

Scottish mathematician, physicist, and astronomer

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David Lyndsay
David Lyndsay

Scottish noble and poet

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Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk

American political theorist and writer

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Dougal Dixon
Dougal Dixon

British author

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