Top universities for students who’ve changed the world

Old fashioned telephone
Take inspiration from former students who made things happen on a huge scale.

Some universities have students who transform our way of life. Here are some of the graduates who have led, inspired and truly shaken things up. From the inventor of steam trains to the pioneer of space travel, from paving the way to sexual revolution to laying the foundations of the world wide web.

University of Aberdeen

It was Aberdeen graduate Patrick Manson who first recognised that the malarial mosquito packs a devastating punch. Its bite transmits parasites from the insect’s saliva into the human bloodstream, where they travel to the liver to reproduce.

Manson’s discovery has saved millions of lives with the production of insecticides, repellents and mosquito nets, and draining swamps of mosquito larvae. The physician’s work is the basis of modern tropical medicine and secures his place in history.

University of Cambridge

There’s a super-long list of the famous and infamous who have wandered along the backs of Cambridge’s colleges alongside the River Cam, including William Wordsworth. You can hardly get a more influential scientist than Cambridge’s Isaac Newton or its ‘father of computing’ Charles Babbage. Former student Oliver Cromwell changed the British state and the monarchy forever.

Dame Elizabeth Cadbury was a Quaker philanthropist who lifted the lives of many people. She founded the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, built holiday accommodation for children living in slums, pressed for the inclusion of women’s rights into the Treaty of Versailles, worked with Belgian refugees in the Second World War, was a magistrate and an MP, and helped ensure school children had regular medical inspections. She was honoured for her services by several countries.

University College, London

UCL boasts Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, as a famous alumnus.

After studying for just two years, Marie Stopes graduated from UCL with a first class BSc in botany and geology and then became the youngest student in the country to gain a DSc (doctor of science), conducting research into the existence of two supercontinents in prehistory. She also established the UK’s first network of family planning clinics, paving the way for a sexual revolution throughout the country.

University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh student Baroness Jennie Lee was a miner’s daughter and one of the first female members of parliament. She played a huge role in the founding of the Open University – by student numbers, the largest higher education establishment in the UK. It was established to widen access to learning and has provided the opportunity for degree-level education for mature students, and those with work commitments and fewer formal qualifications.

The list of Edinburgh’s science pioneers is long. Robert Stephenson studied at Edinburgh before inventing rail travel. James Hutton is the ‘father of modern geology’, James Clerk Maxwell is ‘the father of electromagnetism’. And who was the University of Edinburgh’s biggest cheese of the sciences? Charles Darwin.

University of Exeter

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are the best-selling book series in history and the basis of the second highest-grossing film franchise in the world, below the Marvel series but above the Bond films.

Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel on a manual typewriter; it was rejected by 12 publishing houses until Bloomsbury took up the reins. The rest is history. She moved on to regularly topping the bestseller lists and appearing in lists of the rich and influential.

University of Glasgow

The steam age was a massive shift in human development. James Watt graduated from the University of Glasgow and played no small part in the era, pioneering the development of the steam engine.

Adam Smith – sometimes called the father of global free trade – studied at the university when he was 14. He believed that enlightened self-interest improves the common lot of the people and his later works of political philosophy have been incredibly influential in right-of-centre politics and the way the USA is structured.

King’s College London

KCL graduate Dame Cicely Saunders transformed the way that people are helped at the end of their lives. She was the founder of the modern hospice movement, in which teams of specialists provide palliative care, relieving what she termed ‘total pain’: emotional, physical, spiritual and social distress.

And how cool would it be to have the most important sub-atomic particle in the cosmos named after you (one that has also been called the ‘God particle’)? That’s the legacy of King’s College’s Peter Higgs, one of the particle physicists who came up with the theory of the Higgs boson. Stephen Hawking claimed that the particle might contain the seeds of the destruction of the universe… you can’t get more significant than that!

London School of Economics (LSE)

Rolling Stone Mick Jagger studied business as an undergraduate student at the LSE. He wanted to be a journalist or a politician, describing the latter as being a bit like a pop star.

On the other hand, George Soros may not be a name you’ve heard of but he is a former LSE philosophy student whose career in investment finance has made him so powerful that people write conspiracy theories about his influence. He played a big role in ensuring that Eastern Europe made a peaceful change from communism to capitalism and is the owner of Soros Fund Management.

University of Oxford

Some people do things that fundamentally change history but who aren’t widely known. Explorer, mapper, archaeologist and spy Gertrude Bell is one such figure. After Oxford she worked with Lawrence of Arabia to establish the modern states of Jordan and Iraq.

You can’t get more epoch-making than inventing the world wide web. That honour goes to University of Oxford graduate Tim Berners-Lee.
Berners-Lee is also a leading advocate of net neutrality, which means that service providers and governments should give everyone access to the internet regardless of the source of its content. He views this neutrality as a new, basic human right.

University of Sheffield

In 1991 former Sheffield student Helen Sharman blasted off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur space centre to be this country’s first astronaut. She preceded Tim Peake’s space voyage by 34 years. However, Peake is Britain’s first government-funded (and therefore ‘official’) citizen to leave Earth’s orbit. Helen Sharman was part of Project Juno – a venture between UK businesses and the Russian government.

University of Strathclyde

Jewel thieves, safe crackers and murderers would be thrilled if the forensic tool of fingerprint identification was not available to police detectives. So it’s a good job that Strathclyde student Henry Faulds invented the process. He also founded a teaching hospital, a society for the blind, wrote two travel books, launched three magazines, and prevented outbreaks of rabies and plague.

Another Strathclyde graduate John Logie Baird invented the television set – and few things have transformed recent history as much as the telly. Strathclyde’s James 'Paraffin' Young went on to pioneer oil refining while James Blyth became a pioneer of wind power.

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