Famous Trinity Alumni

Trinity College has a number of alumni who are notable for a wide variety of different endeavours. The College has perhaps been most distinguished by the achievements of its members in the fields of mathematics, natural sciences and literature. It is impossible to mention here more than a very few of the most celebrated; further lists are available:

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.
John Dee Ashmolean

Among Trinity’s mathematicians have been John Dee (1527-1608), author of an important ‘Mathematical Preface’ to the first English translation of Euclid’s ‘Elements of Geometry’; Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who formulated a version of calculus and the principles of universal gravitation; Charles Babbage (1791-1871), inventor of the Difference Engine (an early mechanical computer); G.H. Hardy (1877-1947), author of ‘A Mathematician’s Apology; and Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920).

Natural scientists who have found a home at Trinity (besides Newton), include

  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626) (who hoped to turn the College into a institutional home for experimental philosophy);
  • the geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873);
  • James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who determined the structure of Saturn’s rings and formulated Maxwell’s equations explaining electromagnetism.
  • Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919), a physicist of remarkable range who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1904 for isolating the inert gas argon, was a Fellow of Trinity as well as being Cavendish Professor of physics. ‘It is a good rule in experimental work to seek to magnify a discrepancy when it first appears rather than to follow the natural instinct of trying to get quit of it.’
Niels Bohr, physicist.
Niels Bohr, physicist.

(1885 – 1962), who elucidated the structure of the atom was also a member of the College, as was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), who worked on stellar evolution.

Among philosophers, the associated trio of names of A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)—€”who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950—€”and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) are pre-eminent.

Historians who have been members of Trinity include

  • Francis Bacon, (who beside his other achievements wrote a History of the Reign of King Henry VII);
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), whose History of England was once standard; the brilliant legal and constitutional historian and founder of the Selden Society, F.W. Maitland (1850-1906);
  • Lord Acton (1834-1902), Regius Professor of History and editor of the Cambridge Modern History, who coined the phrase ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’;
  • G.M. Trevelyan (Master 1940-1951).

Classical scholars have included

  • Richard Bentley (1662-1742), who edited the classics and abused the Mastership,
  • Richard Porson (1759-1808), who died in Gin Lane; and J.E. Powell (1912-1998), who endowed a fund for the study of Thucydides. A.E. Housman (1859-1936), was professor of Latin at Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity. ‘Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary, and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head’.
This image portrays Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1828-1829), biblical scholar and Bishop of Durham (1879-1889).
This image portrays Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1828-1829)

With the exception of Housman, all of these scholars also worked on the criticism of the Greek New Testament. Other important contributors to this study who were also members of Trinity, include the celebrated trio of 19th century theologians: J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889), F.J.A. Hort (1828—1892), and B.F. Westcott (1825—1901).

Trinity has been home to a good number of poets and writers since its founding in 1546. Among the most celebrated are

  • George Herbert (1593-1633),
  • Andrew Marvell (1621-1678),
  • John Dryden (1631-1700),
  • Lord Byron (1788-1824),
  • Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892),
  • A.E. Housman,
  • A.A. Milne (1882-1956),
  • Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938)
  • Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977).

The College also possesses the only known manuscript of John Milton’s verse – including ‘Lycidas’ – in the poet’s own hand.

Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi

Since they were first awarded in 1901, members of Trinity have won 32 Nobel Prizes. Four current Fellows of the College and three Honorary Fellows are holders of a Prize in one field or another. There is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics; an award of equivalent distinction is often taken to be the Fields Medal, of which four are awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40. Four members of Trinity have won Fields Medals, of whom three are currently Fellows of the College.

Finally, politicians and public figures who have been educated at Trinity include:

  • Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and ill-starred favourite of Elizabeth I;
  • Earl Grey (1764-1845) Whig Prime Minister (1830-1834) and architect of the Great Reform Act;
  • Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848) Whig Prime Minister (1834, 1835-1841);
  • William Waddington (1826-1894) French Prime Minister in 1879;
  • Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) Liberal Prime Minister (1905-1908);
  • Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) Conservative Prime Minister (1902-1905);
  • Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) Conservative Prime Minister (1923-24, 1924-29, 1935-37);
  • Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), the first Prime Minister of independent India (1949-1964);
  • Erskine Childers (1905-1974), President of the Irish Republic (1973-74);
  • Willie Whitelaw (1918-1999), Conservative politician; Home Secretary, (1979-83);
  • Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991), Prime Minister of India, (1984-1989). R.A. (‘Rab’) Butler was Master from (1965-1978).