Celebrating science

1st July 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

2014 marks 400 years since the birth of the Revd Dr John Wilkins, who in 1648 became Wadham College’s sixth Warden. Wilkins was an advocate of the new ‘experimental’ approach to science, and his informal Philosophical Club became the Royal Society. Science continues to be a core part of Wadham life today and the College boasts leading scientists among its Fellows, educating the talented undergraduate and graduate scientists of the future.

  • John Wilkins (1614-72), Warden 1648-59. Wilkins married Crowell's sister, yet still became Bishop of Chester in1668. Painting by Mary Beale (1633-99).

  • Arms of Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), Fellow 1657, and author of the first History of the Royal Society (1667) and a Wilkins protégé. He became Bishop of Rochester in 1684. These arms, alongside those of John Wilkins and the Royal Society are located in the Hall, by high table.

  • Frontispiece, Wilkins Discourse concerning a new world (1640). This book popularised the new sun-centred cosmology in England. Galileo with his telescope is debating astronomy with Copernicus (left).

  • Nicolaus Copernicus, De Revolutionibus orbium celestium. Libri VI (Nuremberg, 1543).

  • Frontispiece from R Hooke, Micrographia (1665)

  • Illustration from R Hooke, Micrographia (1665)

  • Illustrations from R Hooke, Micrographia (1665)

  • The Land Ship and Wind Car from Mathematical Magick by John Wilkins.

Wilkins and the Royal Society

Alumnus Melvyn Bragg (1958, History) describes Wadham, Oxford in the 1650s as “a melting pot of modern science.” According to historian Allan Chapman (1972, DPhil History of Science) in the Wadham College History, in the university world of 1650 most of his Wilkins’s interests would have been considered “fringe at best and downright eccentric at worst.”

But Wilkins brought unprecedented intellectual energy to Wadham. “Any man who could accompany his induction in the politically sensitive Wardenship of Wadham with the publication of a book dealing with projected designs for submarines, flying machines and perpetual motion devices, as he did with Mathematical magick (1648), lacked neither courage nor confidence. His first book, when he was 24 years old, argued in favour of the feasibility of a voyage to the moon and a defence of Copernican astronomy.”

During the dozen years of Wilkins’s Wardenship, Wadham became a European scientific hub. Wadham College became the regular meeting place for the nucleus of experimenters who after 1660 became the Royal Society.

The informal ‘Philosophical Club’ of astronomers, anatomists, and chemists which regularly met at the Lodgings as friends of the Warden became England’s first real body to pursue systematic experimental research. Their ideas were original and deeply challenging to the traditional philosophy of ‘the Schools’ of ancient learning.

Club members included Seth Ward, Thomas Willis and Robert Boyle, who employed as his assistant the young Robert Hooke who later recorded having experimented with flying machines in the Warden’s garden. Hooke, whose subsequent scientific career was strongly moulded by Wilkins, mentions several Wadham recollections in his writings. His book Micrographia (1665) used the newly invented microscope to study the wing structures of a variety of flying insects. At this time the young John Locke was involved in chemical projects in Wadham. Christopher Wren, who had distinguished himself as an astronomer and physicist had left Wadham to become a Fellow of All Souls in 1653, but continued to attend the Wadham meetings as a friend of the Warden.

Wilkins’s influence as an inspirer of scientific ideas even extended to the College staff. The College Manciple (a steward responsible for food purchasing), Christopher Brooks, was a skilled instrument maker and the inventor of a new quadrant. Wilkins also recruited a former chef to the Prince of Wales as cook, allegedly for his expertise in botany.

Chapman comments: “Wadham’s gardens were notable for their collection of mechanical contrivances, including a talking statue, a rainbow-maker, and glass beehives used to study the bee colony.” It was almost certainly in the garden at Wadham that the experiment which used a syringe to administer an opiate to Sir Christopher Wren's dog was performed in 1656 to see if the blood circulated, and could therefore get the drug to the brain faster that giving it orally – possibly the first scientifically conducted experiment using an intravenously administered drug.   

Chapman adds that: “Wilkins was a pioneer of the use of the English language as a vehicle for carrying the ‘new science’ beyond the scholarly community and had a visionary sense of how technology might change the world.”

Following this scientific activity in the seventeenth Century, historian and Fellow Cliff Davies remarks that scientific activity at Wadham diminished considerably until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Notable Wadham scientists
Since Wilkins’s day, Wadham has seen a number of notable scientists pass through its doors including Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell (Physics), Churchill's principal scientific adviser in the Second World War; Charles Coulson (Professor of Maths and founder of Theoretical Chemistry); Allen Hill (alumnus and Honorary Fellow), chemistry; Nevil Storey-Maskelyne (Professor of Mineralogy, 1856-95); Robert Clifton, alumnus, professor (1865-1915), effectively creator of Clarendon Laboratory; Reginald Victor Jones, alumnus, Honorary Fellow and leading physicist who became a scientific and military expert involved in the establishment of radar during the Second World War;  Botanist David Smith, Honorary Fellow and former Royal Society Research Fellow; Robert Williams, Emeritus Fellow, chemist, Fellow of the Royal Society; Professor David Macdonald CBE DSc FRSE (1969 Zoology), Director of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU); Mathematician and Emeritus Fellow Sir Roger Penrose OM; Professor Anthony Cheetham, (1965, Chemistry DPhil), Goldsmiths Professor of Materials at Cambridge, and Treasurer and Vice-President of the Royal Society; and Professor Marcus du Sautoy (1983, Mathematics), Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

Talking science: What excites our students and fellows about science at Wadham?

Talking science

Studying the sciences at Wadham today

Some 45% of Wadham’s undergraduate intake is for science courses (including Biochemistry, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Engineering, Medicine, Maths, Psychology and Human Sciences). However natural scientists make up closer to 50% of the total undergraduate body, as the majority of scientists are on four-year degree programmes while most Humanities and Social Sciences students follow three-year courses.

Undergraduate courses Graduate courses

Approximately 45% of our post-graduate intake study for courses offered by Oxford University’s Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences Division or Medical Sciences Division. Given that the proportion of graduate students studying multiple-year doctorates is higher in the sciences than in other fields, this means that around 60% of our graduate body are working in the natural sciences.

Among undergraduate science subjects, Medicine receives the most applications, with around ten applicants competing for each place, both at Wadham and across the University as a whole. Maths is the second most popular science course, with five applications per place. At post-graduate level, courses in chemistry and medical engineering are amongst the most popular.

Why Wadham for science?

Scientific heritage aside, Wadham’s close proximity to the science departments is a big draw for students, given 9am start time for many lectures! Other factors that make Wadham a popular choice are its large faculty and excellent teaching, the College’s diverse and supportive ethos, the high number students from maintained-sector schools and the opportunity to get involved in ‘non-sciencey’ activities - the thriving political/charitable/theatrical/journalistic scene at Wadham appeals to those who don’t believe in the stereotypical notion of the ‘two cultures’.

  • Student scientists working in Oxford's Chemistry Department

A library of science

Wadham Library is fortunate to house in its rare book collections a range of highly significant scientific works, dating back as far as the 1580s. The books all came to the library as donations, often made by individuals with a close association to the college.

Our first edition of Copernicus for example, came as the gift of Wadham Fellow Samuel Lee in 1653, while two books written by Wadham's 6th Warden John Wilkins were given by Joseph Grave, who received his M.A. from Wadham in 1656. The physician and Wadham alumnus John Mayow donated a copy of his own Tractatus Quinque Medico-Physici three years after it was published in 1674, and Alexander Thistlethwayte, who left around 1,500 titles to the library in 1771, gave us our copy of Thomas Willis's Cerebi Anatome. In the Victorian era Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society was given by the bibliographer and librarian Edward Gordon Duff, again a Wadham alumnus, while the complete run of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was presented in memory of the Reverend Robert Braithwaite-Batty who died in his early 30s in 1861.

Visit the Wadham library virtual exhibition to view rare books from before the Royal Society
Discover Isaac Newton, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, one of the fundamental texts of Western science. Another landmark text of modern science here is Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. Sebastian Munster's Cosmographia (1584 edition) tries to find accurate geometrical projection techniques whereby the three-dimensional Earth could be accurately projected upon a flat sheet of paper. The book is a sustained essay on mathematical practice and surveying: how to use the stars, solar shadows, and eclipses of the sun and moon to fix co-ordinate points on the surface of the Earth.

Visit the Wadham and the Royal Society collection
Here you’ll find The Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1665- ); John Wilkins, A Discourse Concerning a New World (1640); John Wilkins, Mathematical Magick (1648); Robert Hooke, Micrographia (1665); Thomas Sprat, The history of the Royal Society (1667)

Visit the 17th Century Medicine rare book exhibition
On display is Thomas Willis Cerebri Anatome (1674), one of the foundational texts of modern scientific anatomy and physiology. In it Willis first coins the term "neurologie" [Greek: neuron, nerve ; logos, ordered knowledge] for the scientific study of the brain. Here also is John Mayow, Tractatus Quinque Medico-Physici (1674) written by one of the most brilliant experimental scientists of the age.

Wadham scientists in the news

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