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Oriel’s historical figures and alumni

Since the College’s foundation in 1326, many interesting figures have passed through Oriel’s gates. A selection of biographies of some of these figures can be found below, and further entries will be added in the future to expand this list. If you would like to suggest someone to be added to the list, please contact:

This is a selection of the many historical figures associated with Oriel. More stories about living alumni are published regularly in the Oriel News.

Read more about recent alumni in Oriel News
historical figures and notable alumni
Adam de Brome

Little can be known about the early life and family of the college’s founder, Adam de Brome, though it is likely that he was born at Brome in Suffolk sometime in the third quarter of the thirteenth century [1]. In those days talented young men from humble origins were sometimes educated at the expense of noble patrons, who needed clerks to write letters, keep accounts, and fight on the legal frontiers of property disputes. It seems that Adam benefitted from the patronage of Edmund Earl of Cornwall and lord of the manor of Brome, a cousin of King Edward I. If this was the case, Adam must soon have quit the Earl’s household, since in the early 1290s he was a clerk in Chancery, writing documents in the service of the crown. There, it may be surmised, he established a reputation for efficiency, perhaps bordering on ruthlessness. His first really high-profile commission came in the years 1297-1301 when he was given the unpopular job of overseeing forced sales of produce (at unfavourable prices) to provision the King’s armies fighting in Scotland. It is impossible to know whether the revulsion expressed by some contemporaries at what they saw as an abuse of royal power affected Adam in any way, though his subsequent work as a tax-collector between 1305 and 1323 was almost certainly plain sailing by comparison.

During these years Adam was also acting in a legal capacity, as an attorney at first, and then as a judge in special commissions and at the Staple, which implies some legal training coupled with knowledge of mercantile affairs. An education in Common Law would have been acquired at the Inns of Court, sometimes referred to as medieval England’s ‘third university’, as well as on-the-job in royal service. There is no evidence that Adam attended university, though he worked alongside several clerks who had, and their influence can be detected in the foundation of the college in 1326. His financial acumen was sharpened dealing with other people’s money in his role as a clerk, while on the side he was also acting as a creditor, perhaps as a middle-man raising money for third parties. The details of Adam’s financial, legal, and administrative career might make him seem a precursor of today’s ‘revolving door’ between the worlds of politics and finance, but there were important differences that make such trans-historical comparisons a false friend to the understanding of the past. Not least among these is the fact that all clerks in royal service were – quite literally – clerics, men of the church. It is likely that Adam was ordained in minor orders at an early stage in his career, though he may never have proceeded to major orders as a priest. Clerks in Chancery were often presented to clerical benefices in the King’s gift, which would have given them an income from agricultural produce and tithe receipts. Despite holding various rectories across the country Adam should not be imagined as a peripatetic priest. Rather, as a royal administrator, judge, and small­time financier, he was an absentee clergyman, paying vicars (from the Latin vice: deputy) to sing divine services and minister to his parishioners.

One of Adam’s benefices was the rectory of St Mary’s in Oxford, which he was awarded in 1320. The rectory building was located opposite St Mary’s Church, on the site of the present Third Quad, and it was here in 1324 that Adam set about establishing a community of scholars under the control of himself as Rector. With a license from King Edward II, Adam bought up property in Oxford whose rental income would support these scholars, including Tackley’s Inn on the High Street which is still in the college’s possession and remains in use as student accommodation. Adam was unusual amongst the founders of colleges in being intimately involved in the life of the university. As Rector of St Mary’s he had persuaded Thomas Cobham, the Bishop of Worcester, to pay for the construction of Congregation House, which would be the university’s first common library and lecture room, and he more than once represented the Chancellor of the University in court. Soon, however, Adam became more ambitious, and persuaded Edward II to allow him to upgrade the scholars of St Mary’s into a fully-fledged college with a set of statutes based on those of Merton. Although the King was favourable, Adam’s project coincided with the collapse of Edward’s authority, and it was only by dealing with Hugh Despenser, the emerging focus of political power, that the college received its ‘royal’ foundation charter on 21 January 1326.

Adam was the first Provost of the college he founded, the House of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Oxford, and he was as energetic in finding the funds to add to its endowment as he was in negotiating the turbulent political situation at the beginning of Edward III’s reign. In 1329 he acquired the house known as La Oriole, on the site of the present Front Quad, from the nephew of the King of Castile. By the time of Adam’s death on 16 June 1332 the college comprised six Fellows, and was standing financially on its own feet. Adam left no stipulations for preference to be given to ‘founder’s kin’ or the scholars of his home region in future elections of fellows, which gave the college a freedom unique within Oxford. He was buried in St Mary’s Church.

More about Adam de Brome: Oxford National Dictionary of Biography

[1] This account is based upon that of Jeremy Catto in Oriel College: A History (OUP, 2013), pp. 14-27, where a fuller account of Adam de Brome’s life and the foundation of the college may be found.

Edmund Fellowes (1870-1951)

Edmund Fellowes was a musicologist who rediscovered for the modern era the music of the Tudor and Stuart epoch (1545-1640).

Fellowes was born on November 11th 1870 in London. He showed musical inclinations at an early age, starting the piano at five and the violin a year later. Focusing his attentions on the violin, he made rapid progress and gave his first public concert aged nine. After continuing his education at Winchester College, he came up to Oriel in 1889, spending four years at the college and graduating with a degree in Theology and the one-year postgraduate Bachelor of Music degree.

After Oriel, Fellowes entered the church, taking ordination as deacon in 1894 and as priest in 1895. He held a curacy in Wandsworth, London (1894-7) before being appointed a minor canon and precentor of Bristol Cathedral in 1897. In 1900 he was recommended for his only other appointment, as a minor canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, which position he held until his death on 21st December 1951.

At the outset of his career, Fellowes was involved in a movement to improve the quality of cathedral music that would lead to the creation of the Church Music Society and subsequently to the foundation of the Royal School of Church Music. This was action of far-reaching consequence; but it was beyond the world of church music, as a musicologist, that he would make his most important contribution and achieve renown. He rediscovered and researched music from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that had been long lost to audiences and was thus important both to the development of historical musicology and to the historical music movement in this country. His work appeared as a series of monumental editions: The English Madrigal School (36 volumes, 1913–24), The English School of Lutenist Song Writers (32 volumes, 1920–32), Tudor Church Music (with Buck, Ramsbotham and Warner, 10 volumes, 1922–9) and The Collected Works of William Byrd (20 volumes, 1937–50). In addition, he published widely on musical history and scholarship, including the ground-breaking books: The English Madrigal Composers (1921), William Byrd (1923), Orlando Gibbons (1925), English Cathedral Music from Edward VI to Edward VII (1941).

Although Fellowes was not the only person to work on historical repertory during his time, his able and enthusiastic proselytising for it ensured that his contribution made the greatest impact. He gave lectures and performances and made recordings. His editions successfully combined scholarship with practicality. They were and remain eminently usable. Many of them are still in print and regular use today.

Fellowes was elected an Honorary Fellow of Oriel in 1937. Two years later, the University awarded him the Doctorate of Music honoris causis. He was made Companion of Honour in 1944 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Cambridge University in 1950.

Thomas Harriot (1560-1621)

Thomas Harriot is regarded as one of the great polymaths of his age, with interests ranging from mathematics and astronomy to natural philosophy, translation and ethnography. He observed the moon with his telescope in 1609, several months before Galileo, and in 1614 he constructed a method that allowed a navigator to set a fixed compass course when sailing between two points.

Harriot matriculated at Oxford in 1577 as a member of St Mary Hall (which became part of Oriel College in 1902), and was awarded a BA degree in 1580.

Harriot made huge strides in developing new skills in astronomical navigation at a time when European countries were engaged in much global exploration and were in the early stages of colonizing North America. He was employed by Sir Walter Raleigh to teach him and his sea captains about navigation and to prepare him for his journey to establish a settlement in America. He was then a member of the colony which landed on Roanoke Island in June 1585 and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake a year later. Harriot published a summary of his survey of the land and its people in 1588, entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

On his death, Harriot left several thousand pages of manuscripts which were never published during his lifetime. It is only in the past 50 years that Harriot’s importance has been fully recognized. His book on algebra, Artis Analyticae Praxis, was published posthumously (in Latin) in 1631.

Oriel holds an annual Thomas Harriot Lecture. Past lectures are collected in: Robert Fox (ed.), Thomas Harriot. An Elizabethan man of science (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) and Robert Fox (ed.), Thomas Harriot. Mathematics, exploration, and natural philosophy in early modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

More about Thomas Harriot: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

James Edward Meade (1907-1995)

James Meade was an economist who was awarded the Nobel memorial prize in 1977 for his contributions to twentieth-century economic theory.

Meade originally came to Oriel as an undergraduate to study Greats (Classics) but switched to the newly-established Philosophy, Politics and Economics course at the end of his second year. He left Oriel with an outstanding first-class degree in 1930, after which he was elected to a Fellowship in Economics at Hertford College.

During the Second World War, Meade worked as an economic advisor to the British government in what would become the economic section of the war cabinet office, and he was heavily involved in the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organisation).

In 1947, Meade took up a position at the London School of Economics and ten years later in 1957 he became Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge.

Meade was awarded his Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work on the theory of international trade and customs unions, contained in the first two volumes of The Theory of International Economic Policy.

Other key contributions throughout Meade’s career include the treatise Efficiency, Equality and the Ownership of Property (1964) and his chairmanship of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Committee on the Structure and Reform of Direct Taxation. As one of his obituaries noted, Meade “…more than anyone since John Maynard Keynes, influenced the way in which economic policy is now discussed in Britain”.

More about James Meade: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

John Henry Newman is among the most famous figures associated with Oriel College. He is remembered as a preacher, pastor, controversialist, educational visionary, and one of the most significant modern theologians of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Newman was born in London in 1801, the son of a banker. In 1816 he experienced a religious conversion to evangelical Calvinism, after which he felt that God was calling him to lifelong service. In 1817 he was admitted to Trinity College, Oxford, as an undergraduate and in 1822 he was elected to a fellowship by examination at Oriel. In 1824 he was ordained and became a curate at St Clement’s church. The liberal theological atmosphere of Oriel, together with pastoral work in his parish, began increasingly to challenge his Calvinist views.

In 1832-3 Newman was deeply impressed by journey to Corfu, where he visited Orthodox churches, and to Rome. Shortly after his return, John Keble preached the sermon which is often regarded as launching the Oxford or Tractarian Movement. This movement argued for the protection of churches from control by the state and for the preservation of ‘apostolic faith’. It sought to reestablish some early Christian doctrines and practices in Anglican theology and liturgy and defended Anglicanism as one of the three branches of the Catholic church (together with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy), which offered a via media between Catholicism and evangelism.

Together with Keble and Edward Pusey, Newman became one of the Movement’s driving forces. From 1833 he published a series of articles, sermons, and ‘Tracts for the Times’. Some of these were criticized as undermining the Protestant nature of the Church of England, and by 1835 Newman was in dispute with both theological liberals and evangelicals.

Newman served as Chaplain of Oriel (1826-31, 1833-35) and as Vicar of the University Church (1828-1843). In 1836, discovering that the people of the nearby village of Littlemore, nominally part of his parish, had never had their own church, he built a chapel and a school in the village and served as its vicar until 1843.

In 1839, Newman’s reading of the Church Fathers began to undermine his confidence in Anglicanism as a legitimate branch of the Church and a via media. A period of doubt and intense study followed. In 1843 Newman resigned as vicar of the University Church. In 1845 he resigned his Fellowship of Oriel and was received into the Roman Catholic church.

Newman travelled to Rome to study for the priesthood. On his return in 1848 he founded and became the superior of the Birmingham Oratory, where priests who were not monks or friars could share a religious life. In 1852 he travelled to Dublin to advise the Irish Catholic Church on the establishment of a university. He became the first Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland and there delivered the lectures which became the first part of The Idea of a University (1873), now regarded as a classic argument for the benefits of a liberal education.

Newman’s conversion was far from the end of his involvement in controversy. The late 1840s and 1850s saw him involved in disputes within the Irish Catholic Church, between the Birmingham and London oratories, and between Catholic bishops and laity. In 1861 he wrote a series of pamphlets defending his conversion and theological development which were published in 1864 as the spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua (‘A Defence of My Life’). The Apologia gained Newman sympathy and popularity and, encouraged by this change in his fortunes, in 1865 he wrote the devotional poem The Dream of Gerontius.

Newman continued to be involved in theological and ecclesiastical disputes until his death, but also became a more establishment figure. In 1877 he was elected the first honorary fellow of Trinity College and in 1879 was made a cardinal.

Newman died in 1890 in Birmingham. In 1991 Newman was declared by Pope John Paul II to be ‘Venerable’, the first formal step towards canonization. In 2010 he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, and in 2019, following Pope Francis’s confirmation of his necessary second miracle, Newman’s canonisation took place in Rome on Sunday 13 October 2019.

More about John Henry Newman: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902)

Cecil Rhodes was born in 1853, the son of a clergyman. In 1871 he was sent by his father to join his elder brother and forge a career in Africa.

After a brief period cotton farming, Rhodes followed the rush to the recently discovered Kimberley diamond fields. These, which were worked by numerous small claims holders both African and European, formed the centre of Cape diamond mining. To forge profitable enterprises, Rhodes and other entrepreneurs began to buy out the smaller holders. Early commercial success enabled Rhodes to fulfil his ambition to study at Oxford, where he was admitted to Oriel College in 1873 and took his degree in 1881. He returned to Africa where, by 1885, his mining company, De Beers, had become the largest firm in the region.

Rhodes’s activities in Africa, and the vision of empire that he represented, were controversial in his lifetime, and debate has continued throughout the intervening century in public opinion and academic historiography. This brief account seeks to explain something of why Rhodes and his views were and are controversial.

Once small claim holders had been bought out by larger mining companies, those who continued to work for them were forced to accept what are now recognized as exploitative forms of employment [1].  De Beers pioneered the construction of ‘closed compounds’, where migrant labourers were racially segregated and locked in for the duration of their contracts [2]. In 1881 Rhodes entered Cape politics as an MP, and from 1890-96 was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. In 1889 the British government under Lord Salisbury awarded Rhodes a charter for a British South Africa Company (BSAC) to expand British interests into south-central Africa. The company’s trust deed empowered it to acquire, in these territories, ‘all or any rights interests authorities jurisdictions and powers of any kind or nature whatever, including powers necessary for the purposes of government and the preservation of public order’ and to use these powers for the purposes of the Company [3]. In practice, the exercise of authority often involved force (as, for instance, against the Ndebele in 1893) [4].

Rhodes was a pragmatic politician. His treatment of educated or powerful Africans, whose support he needed, could be cordial, and he financed a newspaper for a largely black readership [5]. His government also passed the Franchise and Ballot Act (1892) which, by raising the property qualification for voters and introducing a literacy test, excluded most Africans from the franchise.

By the 1890s Rhodes was one of the most powerful men in the British empire [6]. In 1899 Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate of law. At dinner in Oriel after receiving his doctorate, Rhodes heard of the college’s then poor financial situation and offered to leave it £100,000 in his will [7]. £40,000 of this was to finance the construction of a new building on the High Street; the rest was to support the endowment of Fellowships and other college expenses. The building was completed in 1911 and decorated with a number of statues, including one of Rhodes himself. The bulk of Rhodes’s fortune was willed to the establishment of the Rhodes Trust and its programme of scholarships for students from Germany, the USA, and the then British colonies.

After his death, Rhodes’s life and legacy continued to divide opinion. Alfred Mosely, a diamond merchant and friend of Rhodes, gained permission from the College to erect a plaque to him on the house in King Edward Street where Rhodes had lived in 1881. Enthusiasm for Rhodes was not universal, however: an alumnus of Oriel wrote of the proposed new building that he ‘could have wished it were not Rhodes’s statue that should appear above the gate into the High. I am not in love with the “Imperial” spirit’ [8].

The nature and coherence of Rhodes’s thinking have been much debated and cannot easily be summarized. In some respects he can be compared with other nineteenth-century men of wealth and ambition in the colonial world and the USA. He shared with many others of his time theories of cultural evolution according to which most Africans were not yet ready for equal treatment with Europeans [9]. He became a staunch imperialist and in his ‘Confession’ of 1877 wrote ‘I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race…’ [10]. He established the Rhodes Scholarships, however, on the basis that ‘no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election … on account of race or religious opinions’ [11]. Rhodes was a businessman and a political deal-maker who prosecuted wars in pursuit of his goals. He held late-Victorian ideals of public service, institution-building, and the importance of an educated ruling class.

Rhodes died in 1902 near Cape Town.

More about Cecil John Rhodes: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


[1] William H. Worger, South Africa’s City of Diamonds: Mine Workers and Monopoly Capitalism in Kimberley, 1867-1895 (Yale UP, 1987), p.108; Charles Feinstein, An Economic History of South Africa (CUP, 2005), pp. 62-6.

[2] Robert Vicat Turrell, Capital and Labour on the Kimberley Diamond Fields 1871-1890 (CUP, 1987), pp. 25-9, 94-9; Marks and Trapido, ‘Rhodes, Cecil John’, p. 596.

[3] Charter of the BSAC, clause 3. For the full text of the Charter see e.g.

[4] Marks and Trapido, ‘Rhodes, Cecil John’, p. 595.

[5] The Izwi la Bantu: Marks and Trapido, ‘Rhodes, Cecil John’, p. 601-2.

[6] The background to the bequest is described by Ernest Nicholson, ‘Hawkins, Monro, and University Reform’, in Jeremy Catto (ed.), Oriel College: A History (OUP, 2013), pp. 438-9. The following outline of Rhodes’s life is based on the biography by Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004), vol. 46, pp. 592-603 (available at supplemented by other materials, and advice from several leading historians of southern Africa.

[7] Jeremy Catto ed., Oriel College: A History. Oxford: OUP, 2013, pp. 438-9.

[8] Oriel College Archives, S.H. Scott to Provost Phelps, 10 May 1906.

[9] Marks and Trapido, ‘Rhodes, Cecil John’, p. 599.

[10] Rhodes, ‘Confession of Faith’, 1877, cited in John E. Flint, Cecil Rhodes (Little Brown, 1974), pp. 248-52.

[11] Wills and Codicils of the Rt. Hon. Cecil John Rhodes (OUP, 1929), p. 12.

William David Ross (1877-1971)

The philosopher Sir William David Ross (1877-1971) is among the most distinguished of Oriel College’s academics, fellows, and former Provosts.

Ross was born on the 15th April 1877 in Thurso, Scotland. The third of four sons of John Ross and his wife Julia Keith, he spent the first six years of his life in India where his father served as Principal of the Maharaja’s College in Travancore. He returned to Scotland to receive his education at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, eventually taking a first-class honours degree in Classics from the University of Edinburgh in 1895. Ross subsequently came up as an Exhibitioner to Balliol College, Oxford, obtaining first-class honours in classical honour moderations in 1898 and Literae Humaniores in 1900.

Often cited as W.D. Ross, his academic career began with an appointment in 1900 as Lecturer at Oriel. That same year he was elected a Fellow by Examination at Merton – a post he held until 1902 when he was elected Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Oriel. A few years later on 29th March 1906, he married Edith Helen (1876/7-1953), with whom he had four daughters.

Ross acted as deputy White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy from 1923-1928 when the incumbent John Alexander Stewart fell ill.  When the position became vacant, Ross refused to run as a candidate. He believed the position should be held by the then successfully-elected H. A. Prichard, whom Ross believed a much better moral philosopher (also remarking that he would ‘prefer working on metaphysics, ancient and most modern’).

Ross’ connection with Oriel runs much deeper than serving as a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy. For in 1929, after the tenure of Oriel’s wartime Provost L.R. Phelps, Ross was elected Provost of Oriel. He held this position for 18 years, leaving it upon his retirement in 1947. During his provostship, he served as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University from 1941-1944. Ross was also elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1927, serving as its President from 1936-1940. This period involved, officially and otherwise, helping scholars seeking refuge from Europe. Some of his admirable efforts involved persuading his colleagues at Oriel to extend fellowship to refugees such as, amongst others, Otto Pächt, Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, and Richard Walzer. Other noteworthy academic roles included being a delegate of Oxford University Press from 1922-1952, serving as President of the Aristotelian Society from 1939-1940, and his election to President of the Union Académique Internationale in 1947.

W.D. Ross is renowned for his work in both ancient philosophy and moral philosophy. His chief interest in the former lay in the work of Aristotle, on which he was the leading authority in Britain during his lifetime. He edited, for a time with J.A. Smith, a large series of translations of Aristotle’s works. These included two major critical translations he undertook of the Metaphysics in 1908 and the Nicomachean Ethics in 1925. Ross additionally edited six of the Oxford Classical Texts works, five with revised texts and complete introductions and commentaries, with the last published in 1961. Ross’ work in moral philosophy is of monumental importance, rivalling (and some think surpassing) his Aristotelian scholarship in lasting significance. This work culminated in The Right and the Good (1930) and Foundations of Ethics (1939, which were his 1935/6 Gifford lectures). In them, Ross made major contributions to normative ethics and to the metaphysics and epistemology of morality. Ross’ primary concern was that the leading moral theories of his day – Utilitarianism and Kantianism – each in his own words ‘over-simplifies the moral life’. Ross argued that these theories mistakenly claim that there is only one fundamental moral principle, and that this principle (which determines when actions are morally right) never admits of exceptions where it would be permissible to violate it. Instead, on Ross’ novel view, there are a plurality of fundamental moral principles – what he called prima facie duties – which identify moral reasons that always count in favour or against doing something (such as not lying, ensuring justice is done, preventing harm to others, amongst other things), and where the strength of these reasons can in principle be outweighed by competing moral considerations. The morally right action, then, is not determined by some exceptionless single rule but, rather, whatever the balance of these competing moral reasons is in a given circumstance. Ross’ philosophical work rightfully remains much discussed to this day.

Any biography of Ross must make mention of his significant war and other public service. His war service began during World War I in 1915 where he worked in Whitehall for the Ministry of Munitions. He eventually rose to the rank of Major and left with the OBE in 1918. During World War II, he was Chair of the National Arbitration Tribunal (1941-1952) and the Civil Service Arbitration Tribunal (1942-1952). Noteworthily maintained in the Oriel College archive is his progressive and sensible suggestion in a memorandum the subject of which is ‘an identical minimum time rate for men and women’. His final public service position was as Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Press from 1947-1949, from whose recommendations the Press Council originates.

For his many years of service, Ross received a Knighthood in 1938. In addition to his Knighthood, he held a collection of other honours. These included Commander First Class of the Order of St Olaf, Grand Officer of the Order of Polonia Restituta, honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Manchester, Dublin, London, Paris, Oslo, and Columbia, and finally honorary fellowship of Merton, Balliol, Oriel at Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin.

After an incredible life of great philosophical endeavour and invaluable service to Oriel College, Oxford University, and to his country, Sir William David Ross died in Cowley Road Hospital, Oxford, on 5th May 1971.

More about Sir William David Ross: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

For excellent introductions to W.D. Ross’ philosophical work:

Skelton, Anthony. (2012). ‘William David Ross’. In The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zelta.

Stratton-Lake, Philip. (2002). ‘Introduction’, in The Right and the Good by W.D. Ross, edited by Philip Stratton-Lake, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ix-l.

Alexander Todd (1907-1997)

Alexander Todd was a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a pioneer in the development of the study of nucleic acids.

After receiving a First in Chemistry at Glasgow University in 1928, Todd obtained his first PhD at the University of Frankfurt in 1931. Todd then came to Oxford to study for a further PhD under Nobel Prize winner Sir Robert Robinson and arrived at Oriel College in 1931.

Todd left Oxford in 1934 and in his early academic career he worked at Edinburgh University, the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, Chelsea, the University of London, and the University of Manchester before he was appointed as Professor of Organic Chemistry at Cambridge University and Fellow of Christ’s College in 1944.

Todd was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1957 in recognition of his 1951 work on the structures and syntheses of nucleosides, nucleotides, and their coenzymes. This led the way for James Watson and Francis Crick to make their own discovery about the double-helix structure of DNA in 1952.

Todd received many honours during his lifetime, including a knighthood, and a life peerage He was elected President of the Royal Society in 1975 and held the post until 1980.

More about Alexander Todd: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Gilbert White (1720-1793)

Gilbert White was a natural scientist, who is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of natural history and ecology. His most famous work, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789, has never been out of print and is one of the most published books in the English language.

White was born and brought up in Selborne, Hampshire, where his grandfather was vicar. He was admitted to Oriel as an undergraduate in April 1740 and graduated with a BA in June 1743. In 1744 he was elected to a Fellowship of the College.

In 1749 White was ordained into the Anglican Church. Unable to become vicar of Selborne because patronage of the parish belonged to Magdalen College, in 1751 he took a curacy in the nearby parish of Farringdon. In later years he declined several better livings and remained curate variously of Farringdon, Selborne, and other villages in the area until his death, living unmarried in The Wakes, his family’s Selborne home. The only place regularly to tempt him away from Hampshire was Oxford. In 1752-3 he served as the University’s Junior Proctor on behalf of Oriel College, from 1752 he was Dean of Oriel, and in 1757 he stood unsuccessfully for the Provostship.

After 1757 White retired increasingly to Selborne. Always a keen gardener, he took an ever closer interest in the natural world around him. For forty years he kept a detailed diary – part gardening notes, part meteorological log, and part naturalist’s database – in which he recorded his activities and observations. He was a horticultural experimentalist, growing a number of then almost unknown crops, including sea kale and sweet corn.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne began as correspondences between White and two friends in which they discussed their observations and theories about their local flora and fauna. White believed in studying living birds and animals as far as possible in their natural habitat (though, in accordance with contemporary practice, he also shot birds and small animals in order to examine their anatomy). His preference for close observation of living plants and animals in interaction helped White to move the study of the natural world beyond taxonomy to the study of ecosystems as integrated wholes. Though notoriously uninterested in the world-changing events of  his day – he lived through the French Revolution, the agricultural revolution, and several major wars, none of which he mentions – he was one of the first scientists to recognize that ecosystems include human beings and their activities.

Through his close study of different bird calls, White established that the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler are three separate species. He was the first naturalist to identify and describe the harvest mouse and the noctule bat. A century before Darwin, he made a detailed study of earthworms. In The Natural History of Selborne, Letter 35, from 1739 he observes that farmers and gardeners dislike worms, thinking wrongly that they eat crops, but that the earth without worms would soon become ‘cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation, and consequently sterile’.

White died in 1793 at Selborne.

More about Gilbert White: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

further information

Oriel’s history

The Rhodes legacy

History of the Chapel