ONLINE EXCLUSIVE – Famous Scientists from Leeds

If you’ve been a student at the University of Leeds for more than one semester you’ve probably heard that Leeds has many famous alumni. The most famous is actor Chris Pine (Star Trek, Wonder Woman), who arguably barely counts as an alumnus; he was in Leeds for a year as an exchange student. Other notable alumnus, who the marketing department enjoy holding up as an example when selling the university to prospective students, is Olympian Alistair Brownlee, who decided to leave Girton College, Cambridge, in exchange for Leeds, where he studied sports science. Likewise, the English department like to note that in 1920 famed writer J.R.R Tolkien (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit) took up the post of Reader in English Language, where he went on to become the youngest professor at Leeds. While these examples are the most well-known, Leeds has also hosted its fair share of notable scientists, both as staff and students.

Firstly, Sir William Henry Bragg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist was a Professor of Physics at Leeds from 1909. Bragg’s research focused on X-rays and he was responsible for inventing the X-ray spectrometer, which can be used to investigate the characteristics of different elements. Later, with his son William Lawrence Bragg, the Braggs worked together to discover X-ray crystallography, which uses x-ray diffraction to study the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal, which is essential in a number of fields including molecular biology. For their ground-breaking work, in 1915, father and son were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Likewise, their work in pioneering this technique allowed dozens of others to win Nobel prizes in later years. If the name “Bragg” sounds familiar it’s because there is a computer cluster with the same name, it’s just a shame that so few actually know why the father/son duo are worthy of honour.

Following on from Bragg, we have William Astbury, physicist and molecular biologist, who was appointed Lecturer in Textile Physics at the University of Leeds in 1928. He spent the rest of his career here at Leeds, eventually becoming Professor of Bimolecular Structure in 1946 where he held this position until his death in 1961. Astbury was an innovator and was involved in developing the field of X-ray diffraction to study biological molecules. As with many of the scientists who will be mentioned here he is rarely recognised for his work. Astbury identified the two major recurring patterns of protein structure (alpha and beta) and is generally considered to be the founder of modern molecular biology. The Faculty of Biological Sciences went on to commemorate him in 1999 by establishing the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology. This multi-million pound research centre builds on the work of both Bragg and Astbury and focuses on molecular and structural biology research and aims to investigate the mechanisms behind a range of diseases.

Moving away from physics the University of Leeds was also host to Irene Manton, acclaimed botanist, noted her for study of ferns and algae. This might not sound like the most exciting field, unless you’re a plant scientists – her work with the electron microscope provided her worldwide renowned for revealing the structure of cilia and flagella, which are projections from the cell. Manton was a Professor of Botany from 1946 until 1969 and was author or co-author of over 140 scientific publications and, since her passing, has had a number of prizes named after her.  In 1998, on the tenth anniversary of her death, the Biological Sciences building at the University of Leeds was named the Irene Manton Building in her honour.

Finally, and more recently, Piers Sellers was a PhD student at Leeds who earned his doctorate in biometeorology from the University of Leeds in 1981. Sellers recently passed away on 23 December 2016 at the age of 61 – in his time he had managed to achieve what few of humanity have; becoming an astronaut. Once Sellers graduated he left the UK, moving to the United States, where he began a career at NASA as a research meteorologist. From there applied and trained as an astronaut and he went on to become a veteran of three space shuttle missions. By the time Sellers retired he had logged 559 hours in space, including 41 hours across 6 spacewalks.

So, the next time you see marketing, or a Tab article, listing the famous alumni keep an eye out and see if any of these scientists make the list.


Steven Gibney


(Image courtesy of the Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

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