Our Nobel Prize winners

The University of Manchester has a rich academic history. We can lay claim to 25 Nobel laureates among our current and former staff and students.

Joseph John Thomson

1906 Nobel Prize in Physics

JJ Thomson studied electrical discharges in gases. Following the discovery of x-rays and radioactivity his imaginative work inspired many young researchers, including Ernest Rutherford, WL Bragg and CTR Wilson. He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1906, partly for showing that cathode rays in electrified gases were composed of ‘negative corpuscles’, soon to be known as electrons.

Thomson was the son of an antiquarian book dealer in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. Aged 14 he entered Owens College, now The University of Manchester, expecting to become an engineering apprentice. He studied with Osborne Reynolds, took some of the first courses in experimental physics and continued to Cambridge where, from the age of 28, he directed the Cavendish Laboratory.

Ernest Rutherford

1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Ernest Rutherford came from New Zealand to study with JJ Thomson in Cambridge. He then worked with the chemist Frederick Soddy at McGill University, showing that radioactive substances decay at constant rates, emitting characteristic radiations: alpha and beta particles and gamma rays. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 while he was Langworthy Professor of Physics at Manchester.

In the laboratory built at the University by Arthur Schuster, Rutherford created a world centre for experiments in atomic physics. Highlights included an experiment in 1909 by Ernest Marsden (still an undergraduate) and Hans Geiger, which suggested that atoms have dense nuclei; the nuclear model of atomic structure (1913); and the first artificial transmutation of an atomic nucleus (1917).

William Lawrence Bragg

1915 Nobel Prize in Physics

While still a research student, Lawrence Bragg discovered the law by which the positions of the atoms in crystals could be calculated from the way an x-ray beam is diffracted. In 1915, aged 25, he was the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics – jointly with his father, William Henry Bragg, then professor at Leeds.

Educated in Adelaide and Cambridge, Bragg served in World War I. He then succeeded Rutherford as Langworthy Professor of Physics at Manchester, where he remained until 1937, building an important research programme in crystallography. When Bragg was back in Cambridge from the 1940s, this subject proved crucial for the structural analysis of DNA and proteins.

Niels Bohr

1922 Nobel Prize in Physics

Niels Bohr won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for investigating the structure of atoms and the radiation emanating from them. He argued that electrons move in defined orbits around an atom's nucleus, and that an element’s chemical properties depend on the higher-energy electrons in its atoms’ outer orbits. He remained a leader in theoretical physics from his research institute in Copenhagen.

Bohr’s father was an eminent physiologist at the University of Copenhagen, where Bohr studied philosophy and mathematics before transferring to physics. As a young theoretician he arrived at Manchester in 1912 to work with Ernest Rutherford, to whom he became devoted. In 1913 they mathematically systematised Rutherford’s nuclear model of the atom.

Archibald Vivian Hill

1922 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

AV Hill shared the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Otto Myerhof. Hill’s physical studies of heat production and muscle mechanics had correlated revealingly with Myerhof’s biochemical research. From 1923 Hill worked at University College London, leading the development of biophysics. He was active in the politics of science, and especially important in resettling Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany.

After training and research in physiology at Cambridge, Hill worked on ballistics during World War I. In 1920 he was appointed at Manchester as Brackenbury Professor of Physiology. He rapidly renovated the department and developed his sophisticated measurements of heat production during and after muscle contraction. One of the University’s life sciences buildings was named for him in 2008.

CTR Wilson

1927 Nobel Prize in Physics

CTR Wilson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for making the pathways of charged particles visible. The creation of a cloud chamber was at the heart of his discovery; fellow Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford called the particle detector “the most original and wonderful instrument in scientific history.”

Wilson was born on 14 February 1869 in Glencorse, Scotland and moved to Manchester shortly afterwards. He was educated at Owen’s College (now The University of Manchester) and went on to win a scholarship to study Physics at Cambridge University from 1888 to 1892.

In 1894 Wilson visited the summit of Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles – and witnessed coronas and “glories” (coloured rings surrounding shadows cast on mist and cloud). On his return to the university’s Cavendish Laboratory, he was determined to build a device that could imitate these natural phenomena.

More than two decades later – aided by the pioneering discoveries of x-rays (1895) and natural radioactivity (1896) – the cloud chamber was perfected and Wilson published two papers on the tracks of electrons (1923).

Arthur Harden

1929 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Arthur Harden shared the 1929 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of sugar fermentation by filtered yeast extracts. His many years of biochemical research at the British Institute of Preventative Medicine, later named the Lister Institute, established the various stages in the conversion of sugars to alcohol, the enzymes involved and the importance of phosphorus compounds in these processes.

Born in Manchester, Harden studied chemistry with Henry Roscoe at Owens College, the forerunner of The University of Manchester. He worked here as a lecturer for nine years, studying the chemical actions of light and the historical manuscripts of John Dalton. In London, from 1897, he worked as one of Britain’s first full-time researchers.

James Chadwick

1935 Nobel Prize in Physics

James Chadwick was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1935 for discovering a previously unknown particle in the nucleus of atoms: the neutron. Having no electrical charge, neutrons can penetrate and split the nuclei of even the heaviest elements. Though intensely shy, Chadwick was deeply involved in atomic politics during and after World War II.

Born in Bollington and schooled in Manchester, Chadwick studied physics at Manchester and worked here with Ernest Rutherford. In 1914, when researching in Hans Geiger’s Berlin laboratory, he was interned as an alien until 1918. He followed Rutherford from Manchester to Cambridge and became the assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1935 he moved to the University of Liverpool, where he renovated the physics department and built a cyclotron.

Walter Norman Haworth

1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

From 1925 Norman Haworth created a major school of carbohydrate chemistry at the University of Birmingham. He identified the chemical structures of many sugars and polysaccharides, and his pioneering synthesis of vitamin C opened the way to its large scale production. His research won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1937, alongside the Swiss chemist Paul Karrer.

As a boy, Haworth worked at the John Rylands linoleum factory in Chorley, where experience of dyes aroused his interest in chemistry. He studied at Manchester, where he began research on synthetic chemistry under WH Perkin Jr. After further work in Göttingen he returned to Manchester as a research fellow, before taking a series of posts elsewhere.

George de Hevesy

1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

George de Hevesy invented the use of radioactive isotopes as ‘tracers’ – a way of following the movements or transformations of an otherwise identical substance with which a tracer mixes. From the 1930s de Hevesy greatly extended this method using new, artificially produced, isotopes. He was awarded the 1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pioneering the use of isotopes in the study of chemical processes.

De Hevesy studied chemistry and physics in his native Budapest, and then in Berlin, Freiburg, Zurich and Karlsruhe. From 1911 to 1913 he worked with Ernest Rutherford at Manchester, where he learned practical radiochemistry, became a lifelong friend of Niels Bohr and realised, over a cup of tea, that isotopes might be used as tracers – for example, to follow the course of ingested water.

Robert Robinson

1947 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Robert Robinson received the 1947 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his investigations on plant products of biological importance, especially the alkaloids. He used classical analytical methods, breaking down complex biological molecules into identifiable components and resynthesising them to establish the structure. The molecules he worked on included those in strychnine, steroids, plant pigments and other dyestuffs, penicillin, and anti-malarial drugs.

Robinson, the son of a Chesterfield textile manufacturer, studied chemistry at Manchester with WH Perkin Jr. His career included professorial posts at Sydney, Liverpool, St Andrews and University College London, as well as military and industrial research. From 1922 to 1928 he was Professor of Organic Chemistry here before moving to Oxford in 1930, where Perkin had established a second leading department.

Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett

1948 Nobel Prize in Physics

Patrick Blackett photographed the tracks of atomic nucleus disintegration using CTR Wilson’s cloud chamber, which he automated so that cosmic rays could take their own photographs. He confirmed the existence of positrons (positive electrons), and that gamma rays can transform into electrons and positrons (pair production). In 1948 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics while working at Manchester.

Blackett trained for the navy and served in World War I before studying physics with Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge. He was Langworthy Professor of Physics here from 1937 to 1953. His investigations into cosmic rays helped lead to Bernard Lovell’s work at Jodrell Bank, and his later research on geomagnetism was important for the plate tectonic revolution in geology. He was a leading advocate of ‘planned science’.

John Douglas Cockcroft

1951 Nobel Prize in Physics

John Cockcroft shared the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics with Ernest Walton. At Cambridge they had created the first proton accelerator and used it to bombard lithium atoms. The resulting production of helium atoms was the first artificial nuclear transformation and a potential source of many new isotopes. From 1943 he helped lead Britain’s atomic programme, initially in Canada and then at Harwell.

Cockcroft, the son of a mill owner in Todmorden, studied mathematics at The University of Manchester and served in World War I. He then studied electrical engineering at Manchester College of Technology before becoming a college apprentice at the local Metropolitan-Vickers engineering company. After his work in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory at Cambridge he helped organise radar defence during World War II.

Alexander Todd

1957 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Alexander Todd analysed biologically important molecules, including plant pigments and several vitamins. He showed that nucleotides, such as adenine, were constituents of DNA, and were related to key metabolic agents such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This work on ‘chemically interesting molecules’ proved crucial for Watson and Crick’s 1953 model of DNA, and won Todd the 1957 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

From humble beginnings, Todd became a statesman of science. He read chemistry at Glasgow and investigated biological molecules at Frankfurt, before becoming a protégé of Robert Robinson at Oxford. As Professor of Organic Chemistry at Manchester from 1938 he worked on chemical weapons and began the studies of nucleotides, which he continued in Cambridge after 1944.

Melvin Calvin

1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Melvin Calvin used radioisotopes to study the complex pathways by which green plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. His main tool, the isotope carbon 14, had been discovered at the University of California, Berkeley, where staff were keen to explore the peacetime uses of atomic science. His elucidation of the mechanisms of photosynthesis won him the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Calvin, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up and studied chemistry in Detroit, undertaking a PhD at the University of Minnesota. From 1935 to 1937 he worked with Michael Polanyi at Manchester and became interested in photochemistry, the subject of his life’s work. Contacts here led him to Berkeley, where he had an outstanding career.

Hans Albrecht Bethe

1967 Nobel Prize in Physics

Hans Bethe worked at Cornell University for 70 years from 1935. His research topics included shifts in the energy levels of hydrogen atoms and the ‘many- body problem’ of atomic nuclei. His work on the nuclear reactions in stars won him the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics. Like several notable scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, he advocated nuclear disarmament.

Bethe studied and researched in Germany until the Nazis came to power. As a result of the persecution of the Jews he emigrated in 1933 and took a temporary post at Manchester. His brief stay proved very productive, working in Lawrence Bragg’s laboratory with Rudolf Peierls, a friend from Munich. Prompted by James Chadwick, they created a theory of the deuteron during a train journey from Cambridge to Manchester.

John Richard Hicks

1972 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

John Hicks shared the 1972 Prize in Economic Sciences with Kenneth J Arrow for general equilibrium theory and welfare economics. Hicks created widely used conceptual tools for the analysis of price mechanisms, technical change, and demand for money. He was suspicious of theory for theory’s sake, the American idealisation of free markets and reliance on econometrics for contact with reality.

Hicks taught at the London School of Economics from 1926 after trying journalism at the Manchester Guardian. His pioneering work on general equilibrium theory was published while he was Professor of Political Economy at Manchester (from 1938 to 1946), after which he worked at Oxford. A close friend of the Manchester economic historian TS Ashton, he published A Theory of Economic History in 1969.

Nevill Francis Mott

1977 Nobel Prize in Physics

Nevill Mott worked on nuclear and collision theory, investigated the properties of metals and semiconductors, and developed a theory of transition metals. At the age of 60 he began the work for which he shared the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics with Philip Anderson and John H van Vleck: fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems.

Mott’s parents both trained under JJ Thomson at Cambridge. Following undergraduate and postgraduate study there Mott worked with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, confirming his vocation for theoretical physics. From 1929 to 1930 he was a lecturer at Manchester, where he wrote a book on wave mechanics. Through his association here with Lawrence Bragg, he gained a productive interest in the structure of materials.

Arthur Lewis

1979 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

Arthur Lewis received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, becoming the first black winner in a category other than Peace. He placed ‘development’ in historical context, stressing the transfer of labour from the traditional agricultural sector to the more productive industrial sector. In his view development was not an exercise in applied neo-classical economics – political, social and cultural influences were vital.

Lewis, from Saint Lucia, studied and taught at the London School of Economics. He made his major contributions to development economics while professor at Manchester from 1948, teaching many Asian and African students. He advised the Colonial Office and, briefly, the newly independent Ghana. From 1958 to 1963 he led the University College of the West Indies, later working at Princeton.

John Charles Polanyi

1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

John Charles Polanyi studied the mechanics of chemical reactions. His particular contribution involved measuring weak infrared emissions from the excited atoms of newly formed molecules, for which he received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Dudley Herschbach and Yuan Lee. He was a proponent of nuclear disarmament and of ‘pure science’.

John Polanyi was born in Berlin, moving to Manchester in 1933 when his Hungarian-Jewish father, Michael, became Professor of Physical Chemistry at this university. Evacuated to Canada during World War II, he returned and studied chemistry in Manchester, where his PhD was supervised by a student of his father. After postdoctoral work at Ottawa and Princeton, he made his career at the University of Toronto.

Michael Smith

1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Michael Smith shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on site-directed mutagenesis. In the 1970s he discovered that single strands of synthetic DNA could bind to virus DNA, even if one base was incorrect – which provided a way of engineering DNA and thus proteins. In a range of private and public research centres, he explored potential medical and commercial applications.

Smith came from Blackpool and won a scholarship to study chemistry at Manchester. After a PhD here in 1956 he took a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to which he was attached for most of his career. In 2004 Manchester’s new biological sciences building was named in his honour.

Joseph E Stiglitz

2001 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

Joseph Stiglitz helped create ‘the economics of information’. He received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for investigating monetary transactions where one party knows more than the other. He also explored market dysfunctions, the need for state intervention and problems of implementing economic reform. He advocated action against climate change and, later, reform of the international financial system.

Stiglitz received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at several leading American universities. He chaired the US Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton and was chief economist at the World Bank in the 1990s, before becoming a major critic of neoliberal globalisation. In 2005 he was appointed chair of the Brooks World Poverty Institute at The University of Manchester.

John Sulston

2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

John Sulston shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sydney Brenner and H Robert Horvitz for research on the genetic regulation of tissue and organ development, including programmed cell death. By painstaking microscopical observations he had worked out the cell lineages in the developing nematode worm. He then led the analysis of the worm’s genome, before turning to human genomics.

Sulston studied nucleotide chemistry in Cambridge, and returned to Cambridge after postdoctoral work in California. Following his study of nematodes at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, he headed the British side of the Human Genome Project. His advocacy of open access to scientific information led to his appointment in 2007 as joint chair of The University of Manchester Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation.

Andre Geim

2010 Nobel Prize in Physics

Andre Geim shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics with Kostya Novoselov for preparing and then characterising individual atomic planes of carbon, known as graphene. In 2004 they demonstrated how to extract and isolate graphene from graphite crystals using Sellotape. Geim also shared the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for his tongue-in-cheek diamagnetic levitation of a live frog.

Geim studied and researched in Moscow, before taking postdoctoral positions in Britain and Denmark, where he investigated a variety of research topics. In 2001, after working in the Netherlands, he moved to a full professorship at Manchester, where he studied gecko tape and directed the Centre for Mesoscience and Nanotechnology. He was awarded the Langworthy Chair in 2007.

Konstantin Novoselov

2010 Nobel Prize in Physics

Kostya Novoselov and his Manchester colleague Andre Geim shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for preparing graphene and discovering its remarkable properties. Its single layers of carbon atoms in hexagonal arrays give graphene great strength for its weight, and it conducts electrons faster than any other material at room temperature. Potential applications include electronics and new composite materials.

Russian-born Novoselov studied in the Soviet Union before beginning a PhD in the Netherlands with Andre Geim. He moved to The University of Manchester to rejoin Geim, won Leverhulme and Royal Society research fellowships, and in 2010 became a professor of physics. Their 2010 award was said to show that you can still win a Nobel Prize for ‘mucking about in a lab’.