The 800-year-old University of Cambridge has educated many notable figures, including 98 Nobel Laureates, 15 British Prime Ministers and 10 Fields medalists, the highest honour for mathematicians. Here are some of the most prominent Cambridge alumni.
Sir David Attenborough (1926 - ) Naturalist, Broadcaster
Attenborough won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, to study Geology and Zoology. He said of his experience: ‘when I came to Cambridge as a student in 1945, my eyes were opened…it was two years of unalloyed bliss’. It was whilst at Cambridge that he realised he could turn his interest in nature into a career. Attenborough has since produced, directed and presented nature programmes in a 65+ year career with the BBC.
The David Attenborough Building, the new conservation campus at the University of Cambridge, opened in 2016.
Sir Ian McKellen (1939 - ) Actor
McKellen achieved a scholarship to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, to read English Literature. During his three years at Cambridge, McKellen became a member of The Marlowe Society, a Cambridge student theatre club, and performed in 23 plays: ‘the group I fell in with almost immediately were the theatre crowd.’ His subsequent long and decorated acting career has ranged from Shakespearean theatre to modern fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and X-Men.
McKellen maintains his links with the university and was made an Honorary Fellow of his college.
Arianna Huffington (1950 - ) Journalist
Despite speaking very little English when she arrived in London aged 16, Greek born Huffington decided to apply to Cambridge University after seeing a photo of it. Huffington soon joined The Cambridge Union Society, the world’s oldest debating society: ‘I studied quite hard as a student but my life was absorbed by the Union.’ Huffington, who was reading Economics at Girton College, Cambridge, became the first foreign and third female President of the Cambridge Union. Following Cambridge, her career has included co-founding world renown news outlet, The Huffington Post.
Lord Byron (1788 - 1824) Poet
6th Baron Byron attended several schools, the last of which was Harrow, before being accepted to Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he became known for both his Romantic poetry and his notorious behaviour. In one story, when forbidden from keeping a dog in college, he brought a tame bear instead, arguing that nowhere did it say he was not allowed one. He wrote: ‘I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.’
Emma Thompson (1959 - ) Actress and Screenwriter
Thompson saw a certain inevitability to her pursuing acting at Cambridge: ‘surrounded by creative people and I don’t think it would ever have gone any other way, really.’ Whilst studying English at Newnham College, Cambridge, she was invited into amateur theatre group, Footlights (Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club), becoming the first female member. Her celebrated Footlights team included fellow British actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. To date, Thompson has won two Academy Awards (Oscars) amongst other accolades, and continues to be a leading British actress.
Alan Turing (1912 - 1954) Computer Scientist and Mathematician
Turing attended Sherborne School, before reading Mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was elected a fellow on his graduation in 1935. One year later, he invented The Turing Machine, an early computer. When the Second World War broke out soon after, Turing was selected to join a cryptoanalytical team at top secret Bletchley Park, helping break German Ciphers. The team eventually succeeded in breaking the Enigma Machine codes, which is seen as a significant victory in the Allied war effort.
Charles, Prince of Wales (1948 - ) Royal
Prince Charles’ education began at Hill House School, London, from where he progressed to Cheam Preparatory School, Berkshire, and then Gordonstoun, Scotland. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, King George VI, Prince Charles was accepted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1967, where he read Anthropology, Archaeology and History.
Having enjoyed acting at school, Prince Charles joined his college’s drama group, the Dryden Society. He also took part in Cambridge Union debates, speaking about environmental issues which continue to be a key concern for the Prince.