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British Science Week: 5 British Scientists Who Made History

British Science Week (March 10th – 19th, 2023) is a time for us to celebrate the field of Science as well as dedicate conversations and resources to improving the sector. This year’s theme is ‘Connections’ and one of History Heroes’ favourite things is doing exactly that! Making connections within themes, making connections between outstanding historical individuals, and most importantly, making connections with our brilliant customers who love history just as much as we do (… and sometimes more!) 

Britain has a long and rich history of scientific discovery, invention and development. From Sir Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion to Stephen Hawking’s publication of ‘A Brief History of Time’… from Frederick Sanger’s pioneering work on insulin to Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of the neutron star, pulsars – British Scientists have been innovators, movers and shakers throughout the centuries. Let’s take a look at 5 British Scientists from History Heroes’ Scientists card game. If you can spot some ‘Connections’ between them, hey – clever you. 


Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) 

Newton was born in January 1643 in Lincolnshire. He was a very bright child who loved drawing and building models and mechanical devices. Newton went to the University of Cambridge in 1661, but in 1665 the University temporarily closed because of the bubonic plague, forcing him to return to his childhood home for two years. Sound familiar to a very recent epidemic?! In May 2020, many of us at home found ourselves baking banana bread and perhaps being more creative and inquisitive. Not far off, it was during his time of isolation that Isaac Newton discovered gravity! 

Newton’s theory of gravity (which legend says, was sparked by an apple falling on his head) helped to explain planetary movement in the Universe. Published two years later in 1687, his book ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ (‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’) defined modern physics. 

This wasn’t Newton’s only discovery. In 1668, he built the first practical reflecting telescope and proposed that white light was composed of all colours of the spectrum – work which he collated in his hugely important book, ‘Optiks’, published in 1704. Newton also developed a new kind of mathematics called calculus! 

With a number of scientific discoveries and theories to his name, Sir Isaac Newton is a true giant of British Science. 


Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) 

Edward Jenner was born just over 100 years later. Jenner is known for creating a vaccine for smallpox which changed the future of contagious disease control forever. 

As a country doctor, he heard that milkmaids never caught smallpox, and was very intrigued by that. Jenner proposed that the milkmaids were generally immune because the blisters they received from cowpox protected them from catching the more dangerous smallpox. Developing his method ‘vaccination’ (after the Latin word for cow ‘vacca’) from 1796 onwards, Jenner went on to found immunology through his life-saving process. 

Before Jenner’s work, 400,000 Europeans died a year from smallpox. After his development of vaccination, the future of disease control was completely changed for the better!


Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955)

In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered something that would save lives and revolutionise wartime medicine. The discovery? Penicillin. 

Fleming was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1881. After studying in London, he became fascinated by the action of blood’s bacterial action, and in antiseptics. While working on the influenza virus he found – quite accidentally –  that a mould had grown in a petri dish, and that a bacteria-free zone had formed around it. Fleming began some experiments and named the substance penicillin. 

By the early 1940s, thanks to Oxford scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, penicillin was on its way to mass production. Six women called the ‘Penicillin Girls’, Ruth Callow, Betty Cooke, Peggy Gardner, Claire Inayat, Megan Lancaster and Patricia McKegney, were employed to ferment the substance to farm Penicillin. From there, mass production was headed up in the US, with the demand for the miracle drug becoming an enormous defence weapon during World War 2. 

Thanks to Fleming’s discovery, penicillin saved thousands of soldiers during the war and millions of lives since. 


Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

British chemist Rosalind Franklin was a fundamental figure in discovering DNA’s structure.

Franklin went to one of the few schools in England that taught science to girls at the time. After finishing school in the 1930s, Franklin studied at Newnham College, Cambridge – and graduated with a natural sciences degree. Today, she is known for her X-ray photographs of DNA which exposed the double-helix structure, leading to Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery in 1953. 

Franklin died at age 37 – respected as a scientist but not given wide recognition for her contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure. After her death, her colleagues continued her research, receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962, 4 years after Franklin’s death. 


Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) 

Fittingly, Stephen Hawking was born on 8th January 1942 – 300 years to the day after astronomer Galileo Galilei. Hawking would go on to reshape the way we think about the universe.

While an undergraduate at Oxford University, Hawking became very ill and was eventually diagnosed with motor neurone disease and was told he only had 2 years to live. Spoiler alert: he lived for far longer!

Hawking’s began studying black holes. His 1974 theory that particles could actually escape from black holes was seen as highly controversial. But interest in the subject grew hugely during the 1970s and his research continued. Hawking’s book, ‘A Brief History of Time’ looked at how our universe was formed, and sold over 10 million copies. 

In 2012, Hawking opened the Paralympics in London. During the Opening Ceremony, he said “However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at.” Two years later, the release of The Theory of Everything brought even more wide-spread attention to the theoretical physicist and his incredible life.

Stephen Hawking died in 2018 – 56 years after he was given 2 years to live.


British Science – where do we go from here? 

Throughout British History, many fantastic individuals have moved science forward. This week is a great time to celebrate them and learn all about their lives! But how can we make ‘Connections’ between them and our lives today?

Like most sectors, the STEM sector in Britain has a long way to go before higher education and careers in science, technology, engineering and maths are accessible to everyone. According to In2Science, only 6% of doctors and 15% of science academics come from working class backgrounds. According to STEM Women, although the percentage of women studying STEM subjects is on the rise, the split is currently 26%. Sadly, this percentage only decreases once entering the world of work, with women making up 24% of the STEM workforce.

In 2020, British Science Week introduced its ‘Smashing Stereotypes’ campaign, which encourages people working within STEM sectors to share their stories about their lives. The campaign aims to challenge old stereotypes about who can be a scientist, and encourages young people from diverse backgrounds to see themselves as scientists. Check out British Science Week’s ‘Smashing Stereotypes’ campaign.

History Heroes wish you an educational and fun-filled British Science Week. Learn all about history’s most brilliant Scientists in our Scientists Pack!


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