Research History

Research History

Queen's Anniversary Prize 2017: Recognition of world-class excellence and achievement

The Health Services Research Unit and Health Economics Research Unit pioneered combination of economic and clinical research to assess medical treatments leading to;

  • Robotic surgery for prostate cancer
  •  7% reduction in Antibiotic treatment in dental practice
  • Ban on smoking in public places
    • Reducing childhood asthma, pregnancy complications and heart problems.
    • Changed clinical practice, policy, legislation and academic studies ...and more

Nobel Laureates:

Among the many pioneers who have been associated with the University of Aberdeen are five Nobel Laureates. Researchers from Aberdeen have been awarded the Nobel Prize in the field of Chemistry, Medicine and Physics. Lord Boyd Orr, Director of the Rowett Institute, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

World Firsts

First Colour Photograph Developed 1861: James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

  • Discovery Electromagnetism – the foundation for technologies of today including television and mobile phones
  • Measurement of colour from primary colours and identification of ‘colour blindness’    
  • Colour photography developed

1st Chair in Archaeology in Scotland 1903, Hector Boece - First Principal ​

  • Recorded discovery of numerous pottery vessels throughout Aberdeenshire in ‘History and Chronicles of Scotland’
  • 1860 the first archaeological museum established on Old Aberdeen campus.-  early 1900s several discoveries on Shetland

1st Research and Development of Insulin, Professor J J R McLeod with Frederick Banting 

  • Insulin as a treatment for Diabetes

1st Research to Develop Partition Chromatography, Richard L M Synge

  • Invention of partition chromatography

1st Research to Develop World’s First MRI Scanner, Professor John Mallard

  • Invention of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Lead a team to build the first whole body scanner with a patient from Fraserburgh
  • The development of the world’s first Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging

1st Research to Develop Radioactivity and Isotopes, Professor Frederick Soddy

Notable Academic Influencers and Entrepreneurs

  • Bishop William Elphinstone: Founder of the University of Aberdeen, 1494-5. In 1483 Bishop Elphinstone established Kings College to train Doctors, Teachers, Clergy and Theology, Learning in arts, and Canon and civil law. Over 500 years later The University continues teaching and researching in these subject areas.
  • Hector Boece: Advisor to Bishop Elphinstone and first Principal of King's College, Principal Boece was a philosopher, historian and academic. As well as performing the duties of Principal, Hector Boece also lectured at the University on medicine and divinity.
  • George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal: In 1593 George Keith founded Marischal College, which later merged with King's College. In 1609, George Keith became Royal commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland.
  • Professor Patrick Copland: Public Education Pioneer 1800s Professor Patrick Copland Introduced extra mural classes, pre-dating Mechanics Institute and London Royal Institution lectures which he was credited as having influenced in 1800
  • Sir Dugald Baird Professor of Midwifery: Major Contributions to Health Policy, Reproductive Health, Perinatal and Maternal Mortality.  Professor Sir Dugald Baird was knighted in 1959 for major contributions to healthy policy, reproductive health, perinatal and maternal mortality
  • Professor Bill Harris (Genetics): Translation of Science to Industry, Co-founder one of the first antibody engineering companies Scotgen Ltd 1970s

Find out more about the history and heritage of the university

Notable Graduates and Academics (16th, 17th & 18th century)

Robert Gordon of Straloch: Educated at Marischal College, Robert Gordon was the first graduate of the University of Aberdeen. Robert Gordon was a cartographer and geographer; he was also noted as a poet, mathematician, antiquary, and for his collection of music for the lute.

Sir Thomas Urquhart: In 1622, at the age of eleven, Thomas Urquhart attended King's College. Thomas Urquhart was a writer and translator and published several works between 1641 and 1693. His best-known work is a translation of the works of French Renaissance writer François Rabelais to English. The Works of Rabelais (Books I and II, 1653; Book III, 1693) 

Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury: In 1656 Gilbert Burnet earned a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Aberdeen, he was just thirteen years old. Between 1679 and 1715 Gilbert Burnet published several works on The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, in 1689 he was consecrated Bishop of Salisbury.

Sir William Keith: William Keith graduated a Master of Arts in 1687 from Marischal College. With family ties to the Jacobites, William Keith lived for some time as an exile in Paris. In 1713 he became Surveyor-General of the customers for the Southern District of the Americas, and in 1717 he became Colonial Governor of Pennsylvania.

Robert Gordon: Grandson of Robert Gordon of Straloch, Robert Gordon graduated from Marischal College in 1689. Robert Gordon was a merchant and businessman spending much of his life in Europe, in 1720 he returned to Aberdeen and dedicated his wealth to the establishment of the Robert Gordon's Hospital.

Professor Colin Maclaurin: In 1717 Professor Maclaurin was elected professor of mathematics, following a ten-day competition at Marischal College. Aged just 19 he became the world's youngest professor, a record that endured until March 2008. During his career he made important contributions to geometry and algebra. The Maclaurin series, a Taylor series expansion of a function about 0, is named after Professor Maclaurin.

James Macpherson: James Macpherson was educated at King's College and Marischal College between 1752 and 1755. James Macpherson was a writer, poet and literary collector, and was the first Scottish poet to be recognised internationally.

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo:  James Burnett graduated from Marischal College in 1729. He was a Scottish judge, philosopher, and scholar of linguistic evolution. He is recognised as a founder of modern comparative historical linguistics and in some circles is credited with anticipating, in principle, the idea of natural selection.

Thomas Reid: Thomas Reid graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1726 and took up a professorship at Kings College in 1752. As founder of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the Scottish School of Common Sense, Thomas Reid played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. Thomas Reid was a great book collector and donated over 1300 volumes to the University of Aberdeen. The Thomas Reid Collecting Prize at the university encourages the collection of the printed word in physical form.

Tobias Smollett: Tobias Smollett graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1750 with a MD degree, he studied at Aberdeen as a mature student, having previously qualified as a surgeon. As a poet and author Tobias Smollet was best known for his picaresque novels, he published works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry between 1746 and 1771

Notable Graduates and Academics (19th century)

Notable graduates and academics from the nineteenth century

James Augustus Grant: Graduate of Marischal College, James Augustus Grant was an army officer who was part of the expedition to discover the source of the Nile. He published his account of the expedition in 1863 and in 1864 was awarded the patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

William MacGillivray: Graduate of King's College in 1815, William MacGillivray began his career as a naturalist as assistant dissector in the University’s anatomy classes. From 1830 William MacGillivray published several works on ornithology, MacGillivray's warbler is named for William MacGillivray. In 1841 William MacGillivray returned to the University as Regius Professor of Natural History at Marischal College. 

George MacDonald: George MacDonald graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1845 with a master's degree in chemistry and physics. In 1848 he began theological training and in 1863 he published his first novel.  George MacDonald is often regarded as the founding father of modern fantasy writing, he was a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature and mentored fellow writer Lewis Carroll.

Sir Charles Wyville Thomson: Charles Wyville Thomson was appointed lecturer of botany in 1850 at the University of Aberdeen, in 1851 he was appointed as Professor of Botany.  Charles Wyville Thomson is best known for his studies of the biological conditions of the deep seas. In 1872 Professor Thomson was selected as chief scientist on the HMS Challenger expedition (1872-1876) which travelled nearly 70,000 nautical miles, the discoveries of the expedition laid the foundations of oceanography.  He was awarded a knighthood on his return from the expedition.

James Clerk Maxwell: In 1856 James Clerk Maxwell was appointed Professor at Marischal College, aged just 2 Professor Maxwell is credited as the founder of the modern field of electrical engineering, his work created the foundations for fields such as special relativity and quantum mechanics. He is best known in for his work on electromagnetism, kinetic theory and thermodynamics, control theory, and colour vision. In 1861 he developed the world’s first colour photograph.

Sir Patrick Manson: Patrick Manson studied at the University of Aberdeen between 1860 and 1865, he completed his studies aged nineteen but was too young to graduate. In October 1865 he was able to formally graduate and in 1866 he received the degrees of Master of Surgery, Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Law from the University of Aberdeen. During his career Patrick Manson made important discoveries in parasitology and is best known as the founder of the discipline of tropical medicine.

James Murdoch: James Murdoch completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the university of Aberdeen, after winning a scholarship to study at the university. He was a gifted individual and was regarded as a genius in foreign languages. During his career he lived in London, Paraguay, Australia, and Japan. He published many works during his life and is most recognised for his work A History of Japan, the first comprehensive history of Japan in the English language.

Professor John James Rickard Macleod:  A graduate of The University of Aberdeen, he gained his PhD in medicine in 1898. Professor Macleod worked in areas of physiology and biochemistry but was chiefly interested in carbohydrate metabolism, he is best known for his co-discovery of insulin with Frederick Banting, Charles Herbert Best and James Bertram Collip. In 1923 Professor Macleod and Frederick Banting received the Nobel prize for Medicine for the research which led to the development of insulin as a treatment for diabetes.

Notable Graduates and Academics (20th & 21st Century)

Dr Myra Mackenzie:  Dr Mackenzie became Aberdeen’s first female graduate in medicine in 1900. She had a successful and prominent medical career, with appointments as Resident Physician and Surgeon at the Aberdeen Royal Hospital for Sick Children and later as School Medical Inspector for the County of Staffordshire.

Isabel Kerr: Isabel Kerr Graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1903 with a MB ChB. In 1907 she travelled to India as a medical missionary and in 1911 opened the Victoria Leprosy Centre. In 1923 Isabel Kerr and her husband, Reverend George McGlashan Kerr, were awarded Kaisar-i-Hind Medals for public service in India.

Frederick Soddy: Professor of Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen from 1914-1919, Professor Soddy's research focused on uranium decay and the discovery of isotopes. His work and essays popularised a new understanding of radioactivity and inspired science-fiction writer H G Wells. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research in radioactive decay and his formulation of the theory of isotopes.

Nan Shepherd: Graduate of the University of Aberdeen in 1915. Nan Shepherd was a poet and author of three highly acclaimed works, which remain classics of 20th Century Scottish Literature. Nan Shepherd edited The Aberdeen University Review, and was awarded an honorary degree from the university in 1964

Agnes Mure Mackenzie, CBE: Agnes Mure Mackenzie studied English literature as an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen and also edited the university magazine. During the First World War Agnes Mure Mackenzie was an assistant lecturer at the University and an instructor at the local teacher training centre. She is best known as a historian and author and was awarded a Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1924. in 1945 she was awarded a CBE for her services to Scottish literature and Scottish history.

Dr Mary Esslemont, CBE: Dr Esslemont graduated from the University in Science (1915), Arts (1916) and Medicine (1923). While at the university she was appointed the first female president of the Student Representative Council. She served on the University General Council for over 40 years and in 1947 became the first woman assessor on the University Court. She was Vice President of the British Medical Association and was the only woman on the committee negotiating for the development for the NHS with Aneurin Bevan. Dr Esslemont was awarded a CBE in 1955.            

Professor Hans Kosterlitz: One of the University of Aberdeen's most famous scientists Professor Kosterlitz co-discovered morphine-like chemicals produced in the brain. He joined the university in the 1930’s, was established as head of the Department of Pharmacology in 1968, and became director of the University's drug addiction research unit in 1973. Professor Kosterlitz received many awards, prizes, and lectureships, including the Schmiedeberg Plakette of the German Pharmacological Society, the Wellcome Gold Medal of the British Pharmacological Society, the Royal medal of the Royal Society of London, and the Albert Lasker award.

Flora Sadler: At the age of 18 Flora Sadler won a scholarship to study at the University of Aberdeen, she graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics in 1934. After graduation Flora Sadler took up a research post at the university, conducting research into sources of radioactivity, she also lectured in mathematics. During the summer of 1935 she studied eclipse computation at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and in 1936 she joined an expedition to Siberia to observe a total eclipse of the sun. After the Second World War, Flora Sadler became the first woman to be promoted to a Principal Scientific Officer at the Royal Observatory. She was also the first female secretary of Royal Astronomical Society.

Sir Edward Maitland Wright: In 1936 Edward Wright was appointed as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Aberdeen. During the war Professor Wright was seconded to the Air Ministry Intelligence at MI6 headquarters. Edward Wright became Vice-Principal of the University in 1961 and Principal and Vice-Chancellor from 1962 to 1976. Following his retirement from his duties as Principal he continued to work as a Research Fellow at the University until 1983. Professor Wright published over a hundred papers covering number theory and graph theory. The Edward Wright building is named in recognition of his service to the university.

Eric Linklater, CBE: A student of the University of Aberdeen and University Rector from 1945-48. As a student he was president of the Aberdeen University Debater and wrote a musical comedy for the Aberdeen Student Show. Eric Linklater was a notable writer of literature for adults and children and in 1944 he was awarded the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association for the year's best children's book by a British subject. Eric Linklater was appointed CBE in 1954, and elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1971. The Linklater Rooms at the university are named in his honour.

Sheila S. Macintyre: Sheila Macintyre was an assistant Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, and under the supervision of Edward Maitland Wright, received her PhD in 1947. Between 1947 and 1958 she published several works on Mathematics, and co-authored a German-English mathematics dictionary. She was best known for her work on the Whittaker constant.

Reginald Victor Jones: Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen from 1946-1981. R V Jones was a physicist and scientific military intelligence expert who played an important role in the defence of Britain in World War II. While at Aberdeen the work carried out by R V Jones improved the sensitivity of scientific instruments such as seismometers, capacitance micrometres, microbarographs and optical levers.

Sheena Blackhall: Sheena Blackhall was a creative writing fellow in Scots at the Elphinstone Institute from 1998-2003, she received multiple awards and honours over her career, including Robert McLellan tassie for best Scots short story, the Hugh MacDiarmid trophy for best Scots poem, the Sloane Award, and the William Gilchrist Graham prize for best Scots short story. In April 2009 Sheena Blackhall was inaugurated as Makar for Aberdeen and the North East of Scotland, and in 2018 the University of Aberdeen awarded her the degree of Bachelor of the University.

Professor Neva Haites, OBE: Professor Haites is a clinical geneticist focused on molecular genetics and diseases in humans, Professor Haites specialises in cancer genetics. In 2006 Professor Haites was awarded an OBE for services to medicine. Having previously been Head of the College of Life Sciences and Medicine, Professor Haites became Vice-Principal for Development and Equality & Diversity in September 2011, the first female Vice-Principal to have been appointed in the history of the University.