With over a century of pioneering scientific research and achievement in its proud history, its no surprise that the University of Birmingham has a host of Nobel Prizewinners to its name.
The newly-restored boutique-style Hornton Grange opens soon at Edgbaston Park Hotel and Conference Centre. Each of the six luxurious bedrooms bears the name of one of these academic giants.
Sir Paul Nurse is a British geneticist and cell biologist, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001. Working in fission yeast, he showed that the cdc2 gene encodes a protein kinase which ensures the cell is ready to copy its DNA and divide. This pioneering research enabled the development of new treatments and medicines for cancer and other serious diseases.
Nurse’s passion for science was fostered in an unlikely setting: a Guinness brewery. On leaving school, Nurse lacked the foreign language qualification that was required for university entrance. Instead he worked in the microbiological laboratory of the local brewery, where a sympathetic boss gave him time to carry out research experiments. Despite a failed French exam, Nurse’s potential was apparent; he was accepted to the University of Birmingham in 1967.
Sir John Vane was a British pharmacologist, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982. Everyone who has taken medicine for cardiovascular disease, pain or chronic inflammation is in Vane’s debt. He demonstrated that aspirin inhibits the formation of prostaglandins associated with pain, fever and inflammation, thus explaining the effectiveness of the world’s most widely-used drug.
Vane’s extraordinary forty-year career in scientific research began at the University of Birmingham. After graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1946, his professor asked what he hoped to do next. ‘Anything but chemistry,’ Vane replied. The professor offered him a place at Oxford to train in pharmacology, which Vane accepted – before going immediately to the library to look up pharmacology in the dictionary.
Francis Aston was a British chemist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1922.
Aston discovered isotopes, revealing elements might have the same chemical properties but different atomic masses, and invented the mass spectrograph in 1919. In doing so, he paved the way for the creation of modern nuclear physics. Aston predicted that the nucleus of an atom must be bound by a force of enormous energy: “powers beyond the dreams of scientific fiction”.
Born in nearby Harborne, he studied first chemistry and then physics at Mason College, the forerunner of the University of Birmingham. Aston was not only a pioneer in the laboratory: he learned to surf in Hawaii, built one of the first motorcycles, and competed in some of the earliest motorcycle races.
Sir Norman Haworth was a British organic chemist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1937. He is best known for determining the chemical structures of carbohydrates, including sugars, starch and cellulose. In 1934 he succeeded in synthesizing vitamin C, allowing it to be mass-produced for medical purposes at a low cost.
Haworth’s achievements had humble beginnings. After leaving school at fourteen to work at the linoleum factory managed by his father, Haworth became intrigued by the science of dyestuffs. Despite discouragement from his family and friends, he was so determined to pursue a career in chemistry he sought private tuition, and gained a place at the University of Manchester in 1903. He went on to become Mason Professor of Chemistry, Dean of the Faculty of Science, and Vice-Principal here at the University of Birmingham.
Professor Peter Bullock was a British soil scientist, who was collectively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
A powerful advocate of the need to treat soil as a sustainable resource, Bullock’s expertise in soil micromorphology helped to demonstrate the essential processes soil performs to support life on earth, from growing food to purifying water. In his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he revealed the impact of climate change on land degradation, erosion and desertification, and was influential in spreading concern about sustainability and man-made climate change worldwide.
Bullock’s career might have taken a very different path, however: in 1955, he turned down the chance to play football for Wolverhampton Wanderers in order to read Geography here in Birmingham.
Maurice Wilkins was a New Zealand-born British biophysicist, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.
Wilkins was one of the four scientists to discover DNA in 1953. He began using optical spectroscopy to study DNA in the late 1940s. With Rosalind Franklin, he went on to record X-ray diffraction data, forming both the basis and the proof of Francis Crick and James Watson’s proposed double-helical model.
While a research student at the University of Birmingham during World War II, Wilkins supported the war effort by improving the cathode-ray tubes used in radar screens. In later life, he served as President of the British Society for Responsibility in Science, and campaigned against nuclear war.
These scientific innovators join the many great women of the University of Birmingham, and other cultural and scientific pioneers, also honoured in room names throughout Edgbaston Park Hotel and Conference Centre.