7 British Scientific Pioneers Who Changed The World


This week, Britain is celebrating‘British Science Week’by promotingscience, engineering...

Lauren McGuire

By Lauren McGuire

This week, Britain is celebrating‘British Science Week’by promotingscienceengineeringtechnologyand maths. 

British innovation within Science has had a huge global impact on all aspects of life– from Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking – the world as we know it would be a very different place without British discoveries. But who were some of the scientists that gave Britain it’s long and proud history of scientific achievements and what did they discover? 

1. Charles Darwin (1802 -1882)

A list of British scientific pioneers would not be complete without Charles Darwin who is renowned for his contributions to the science of evolution.

In 1831 Darwin was invited to join an expedition to chart the coastline of South America, HMS Beagle and it was here that he became fascinated with the wide array of wildlife and fossils he observed. After further investigation, Darwin theorised that all species evolved over thousands of years from common ancestors, with the best genetics rising from natural selection.  He published a book in 1859 with his observations and evidence, ‘On the Origin of Species’ and by 1870 his concepts were accepted as fact by many.

Darwin’s discoveries are still taught widely and are considered fundamental concepts in Science.  

2. Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and writer, was years ahead of her time and is recognised as the first ‘computer programmer’ despite being alive a hundred years before the first programmable computer was made.

She is known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer – the Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognise the true potential of the machine and published the first algorithm for Babbage’s proposed machine despite living in a conservative Victorian Era where many women were discouraged from Science.

Without her work, the work of Alan Turing (the creator of the computer) may not have been possible!

3. Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955)

Like all of the Scientists on our list, Alexander Fleming’s discovery had an impact that transformed the world – Penicillin.

Fleming served in the First World War, and during this time he witnessed many deaths due to the inability to treat infections sufficiently. This led him to begin investigations into better antibacterial treatments.

But it wasn’t until 1927 that Fleming had a breakthrough. He had been investigating the properties of the bacteria Staphylococci when one culture accidentally became contaminated with a fungus. Fleming noted that the contaminating fungus had destroyed the surrounding Staphylococci. From this fungus, named Penicillium, Penicillin, as we know today, was derived and was amongst the first medications able to fight against bacterial infections.

4. Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, was central to our understanding of life’s building blocks: DNA and viruses.

In 1947, Franklin went to work in Paris, where she became an accomplished x-ray crystallographer which led to her achieving a Research Associate position at King’s College, London. Here, Franklin used what she had learnt in Paris to take images of DNA by X-ray diffraction. These images lead to the discovery of the DNA double helix – which was crucial in understanding molecular biology.

Franklin then went on to lead pioneering working into the molecular structure of viruses where her team succeeded in obtaining detailed X-ray images of the polio virus enabling us to understand it better. 

5. Anne McLaren (1927 – 2007)

Developmental Biologist’s, Anne McLaren, instrumental work in IVF (in-Vitro fertilisation) helped millions of parents to conceive children that otherwise would not be able to.

From 1959-1974, McLaren studied a variety of fertility-related topics at the Institute of Animal Genetics where she developed embryonic transfers in Mice, immunocontraception and more. This research led the foundations for the development of IVF as a viable solution for infertility.

The first baby was born via IVF in 1978 when Sir Robert Geoffrey Edwards, surgeon Patrick Steptoe and the nurse Jean Purdy successfully pioneered conception through IVF.

6. Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) 

Stephen Hawking is one of the most famous theoretical physicists of our time and founded many theories that changed the world such as his theory that black holes emit radiation (which is often called Hawking Radiation) and his theory explaining the union of ‘general theory of relativity’ and ‘quantum mechanics’.

Despite being diagnosed with a life-altering disease (motor neurone disease) and being told he would only live for another two years, Hawking went on to live for another 50 years, communicating through a speech-generating device, and continuing to educate the population on the workings of our universe whilst simultaneously campaigning for better rights for those living with disabilities. 

7. Timothy Berners-Lee (1955)

Engineer and computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, is responsible for one of the biggest innovations of the modern world – the World Wide Web. Without this life-changing invention, the digitally connected world we live in today wouldn’t exist.

Tim is currently a Professional Fellow of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well as the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium where he oversees the continued development of the web.

He’s an advocate for net neutrality and has received many accolades his invention over the years, including a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth ll. 

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