800 Years of notable Alumni

Jen Mills 23 June 2009

Jen Mills introduces you to some of Cambridge University’s former students


One of the most successful sportswomen of Cambridge – and indeed the world – is table tennis player Deng Yaping. She won six world championships and four Olympic gold medals, despite having originally being denied a place on the Chinese team because she wasn’t quite five feet tall.

Kieran West, once captain of Cambridge University Boat Club as well as having three boat race victories to his name, in 2000 became the first person to win gold in the Olympic games while still a Cambridge student.

Another talented rower was Hugh Laurie, better known now for his role as Dr Gregory House M.D, or as the Prince Regent in Blackadder. Laurie was in the 1980 boat race and seemed to have a promising career in rowing ahead of him. This possibility was cut short, however, when he contracted glandular fever. With extra time on his hands, Laurie joined Footlights, and discovered an alternative career path on the stage.


The Romantic poet Lord Byron was not impressed with the university at first, telling a friend that it was “a villainous chaos of din and drunkenness”. An animal lover, perhaps one of the reasons he felt so unhappy was Trinity’s rule against keeping dogs. Finding that there was no such rule against keeping bears however, he acquired a tame bear.

Vladimir Nabakov, author of ‘Lolita’, described how “Not once in my three years of Cambridge -repeat: not once – did I visit the University Library, or even bother to locate it”.

Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and script editor for the “Doctor Who” – was a student at St John’s. He was enthusiastic about coming to Cambridge as he wanted to join Footlights, however, in his first term he found them ‘aloof and rather pleased with themselves’ so joined CULES (Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society) instead.

Maths & Science

Newton and Darwin are of course two of the most famous scientists to have passed through the university.

Students may well also be familiar with the two scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, given their association with The Eagle pub on Benet Street. The pub is where they announced their discovery of DNA, the ‘secret of life’, on the 28th February 1953.

David Attenborough read Geology and Zoology at Clare College. Well known for producing and presenting BBC natural history programmes for over 50 years, the path to this success was not always easy; one of his first producers at the BBC advised against putting him on camera because “his teeth are too big”.

A mathematician who has influenced the way we all use numbers was William Oughtred, a student at Kings College in the early 1600s. He introduced the ‘x’ symbol for multiplication. He was not only a mathematician but also an alchemist, an astrologer and an Anglican priest.

Eighty-three Nobel laureates have been students at Cambridge, more winners than from any other institution.

Lord Rayleigh, a former Chancellor of Cambridge University, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1904, for his discovery of element Argon. He also discovered why the sky appears blue.

“Best” of the rest…

Prince Charles was a student at Trinity. A newspaper article described the student prince as “Strictly Traditional.. He goes to the theatre in London occasionally, but has never been seen at a nightclub and, aside from sneaking a cherry brandy as a schoolboy, is known to drink nothing stiffer than an occasional sip of champagne.”

The pro-Soviet Cambridge spies are well known for the espionage they were involved in against England. The KGB targeted Cambridge as a recruiting ground for spies, surmising that promising students might well soon be in positions of power. This theory proved correct, and one of them, Philby, was even appointed head of the Secret Intelligence Service’s anti-Soviet section.
Richard Whitely and Carol Vorderman, once the faces of Countdown, studied here. Although Carol is famous for her quick ability to calculate, this did not stop her from getting a third in each year of her Engineering degree.

A past student that Cambridge might rather not acknowledge is Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP. The Times reported that Griffin has a glass eye which he occasionally takes out and puts on the table at parties. Griffin accused The Times of lying, protesting, and “I have been known once or twice to take it out and put it in someone’s drink when they have asked me to keep an eye on their drink, but I have never put it on a table.”

Jen Mills