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200 years of research and innovation at Newcastle University

7 July 2022

Newcastle University's history starts almost 200 years ago with the establishment of the School of Medicine and Surgery in Newcastle in 1834.

Since then, our alumni and other local innovators have made some impressive breakthroughs in the fields of science, technology and medicine, including cancer treatments and new species! Discover the biggest breakthroughs to come from Newcastle in this timeline.

1849 – The father of epidemiology

An early graduate of the School of Medicine and Surgery, John Snow, disproved the widespread belief that cholera was transmitted and spread by ‘bad air’ or ‘bad smells’ from organic matter through his pioneering studies that began in Newcastle.

Snow studied at the Newcastle Infirmary and attended to cholera sufferers in the Killingworth Colliery during the 1831 outbreak. His observations during this time formed the basis of his later research which identified cholera as a waterborne disease, leading him to become known as one of the fathers of epidemiology.

1871 – Supporting the local mining community

Following campaigning by the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME), the College of Physical Science was established in 1871 as part of Durham University. Having sprung from a need for training among mining engineers, the College was rooted in the practical applications of science and engineering.

In its first year of teaching, the College had eight teaching staff, 173 students and offered tuition in four core subjects, including Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Geology.

Newcastle was a hub of industrial activity at the time, and we’re proud to celebrate the city’s early innovators like ‘father of railways’ George Stephenson and Lord William Armstrong on our campus today. The College of Physical Science was renamed Armstrong College in 1904 in honour of this renowned inventor, and is now Armstrong Building, the centre of our campus where our students graduate each year.

1878 – Let there be light!

Sunderland-born innovator Sir Joseph Swan demonstrated his invention of the electric light bulb at a lecture to 700 people in Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society on 18 December 1878. His house in Gateshead was the first in the world to be lit by lightbulb.

1894 – Full steam ahead

The world’s first steam turbine-powered ship was launched in 1894 and built from a light steel by the firm of Brown and Hood, based in nearby Wallsend. The vision of distinguished astronomer and mathematician Sir Charles Parsons, his turbine achieved a speed of 18,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), compared to a previous maximum of 1,500 rpm.

Turbinia turned up unannounced at the Navy Review for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Spithead in 1897 and created a spectable by racing between the two lines of navy ships and easily evading a Navy picket boat that tried to pursue her, almost swamping it with her wake. Parsons soon saw his steam turbine widely used for both commercial and military ships due to its ability to provide high speeds with less vibration.

1906 – This female pioneer rocks!

Mary Kingdon Heslop, one of the first women to be elected fellow of the Geological Society of London,  graduated in physics and geology from Armstrong College in 1906 and gained her MSc in 1909 for her work on igneous petrology – the study of rocks formed from magma – in which she pioneered the use of colour photomicrography. Mary published several papers on the igneous dykes of Northern England and later became the first woman lecturer in geography at Leeds University.

1937 – King’s College is formed

In 1937, the two Durham University colleges in Newcastle - Armstrong College and the School of Medicine and Surgery – merged to become King’s College, drawing together the fields of medicine and engineering to create one college focused on a broad range of scientific discoveries.

1945 – Cream of the crop

In 1945, King’s College took over the lease of Nafferton farm, a 498 hectares farm located 12 miles west of Newcastle, near Stocksfield in the Tyne Valley, and took ownership of the Cockle Park farm from Northumberland County Council.

The farms ensured a permanent home for our Agriculture department to establish crop experiments and deliver 10-week training courses for the local farming community, and have remained essential to teaching, research and our work with the agricultural community for the past 60 years.

1957 – Welcome to the digital age

In 1957, King’s College opened its Computing Library - housing our first computer, a Ferranti Pegasus! - initially to offer computing support to researchers in both Durham and Newcastle. The Ferranti Pegasus, which was christened Ferdinand (FERranti DIgital and Numerical Analyser Newcastle and Durham), was also available to local industry as it was one of the only computers available in the region.

It soon became clear that education for users was essential. Newcastle became the first British university to teach a course in computer programming to undergraduates. Students in the last year of the Honours degree in Mathematics were offered a course in Numerical Analysis. The Postgraduate Diploma in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing was established in October 1959.

Just 15 years later, Newcastle made history again by being the first UK university to launch the first 'advanced' computer-based master's degree programme, an MSc in Computing Software and System Design funded through the Science Research Council.

1960s – Becoming a world leader in ageing research

Newcastle researchers were the first to recognise that Alzheimer’s disease was the major cause of dementia in older people in the 1960s. Scientists identified the major brain biochemical deficit which causes Alzheimer’s disease, making our Faculty of Medical Sciences a world leader in ageing research and age-related illness.

1982 - Providing a home for cancer research

The Newcastle University Cancer Research Unit (CRU) opened for the very first time in 1982, providing the first laboratory home for cancer research in Newcastle with 7 principal investigators. In the past 40 years, this has grown to a team of more than 100 principal investigators working across the cancer research pathway, with strengths ranging from cell biology and clinical trials to healthcare research and cancer research training.

1990s – From Wallsend to Wall Street

Transactions worth billions of dollars take place every day on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ. Traders use Intel hardware, the creation of which was made possible by computer scientists and electronic engineers at Newcastle University and their role in the worldwide adoption of asynchronous microprocessor chips. Financial traders now rely on these fast and powerful chips when analysing vast quantities of data and making split-second decisions on major deals.

2007 – Hello Singapore!

In 2007 we opened a new campus in Singapore dedicated to engineering, working in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Technology. Since then, over 1,000 students have graduated in major areas of Engineering and Science. 

In 2017, we expanded our work in Singapore by opening the Newcastle Research and Innovation Institute in Singapore, providing a regional hub for international research collaborations and industry partnerships. Researchers at our Singapore campus work closely with their UK colleagues and those from other institutes, bringing international expertise to research and industry projects in areas such as cybersecurity and the sustainable recycling of ships.

2010 – Heralding a new era of cancer treatment

Newcastle University has been at the forefront of the global battle against cancer, leading breakthroughs in the development of ‘smart’ drugs known as PARP inhibitors. In 2010, our discovery and development of PARP inhibitors as a ‘smart’ drug for cancer treatment was recognised by Cancer Research UK and awarded their inaugural Translational Cancer Research Prize.

The drugs are designed to target the weakness in cancers and work by blocking the action of PARP – an enzyme involved in the repair of damaged DNA. By themselves, PARP inhibitors are unable to kill cancer cells but when used to target cancer cells that lack a protein normally produced by BRCA genes, which is also involved in DNA repair, the two factors act together to attack the cancer cell. The cancer cells are no longer able to repair DNA damage and ultimately die, while leaving healthy cells unscathed. The treatment also has fewer side effects than chemotherapy.

2013 - $1million TED Prize to inspire the future of learning

Former Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra developed the concept of self-organised learning environments (SOLEs), which originated from his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments, in which he placed a computer in a wall of an Indian slum and noted that children could teach each other anything from English to programming.

Professor Mitra won the first ever $1million TED Prize for this work, and his research has gone on to become a global phenomenon, its impact extending to 27 countries across five continents and being the inspiration for the film Slumdog Millionaire.

2017 – Opening the world’s largest Urban Observatory

Newcastle University's Urban Observatory gathers huge amounts of data on everything from flooding to air pollution, traffic flows and even the behaviour of bees so that informed decisions can be made as we develop our cities for the future. With 70% of people living in cities by 2050, this work is vitally important to ensure that informed decisions can be made to protect the environment as urban areas are developed. 

Our Urban Observatory is the largest sensor deployment in the UK and the largest set of open environmental monitoring data in the world. Since opening in 2017, it has made over 900 million observations - that’s 2,000 observations a minute of over 60 environmental indicators, from air quality to bat behaviour!

2018 – Prosthetic ‘seeing’ hand and 3D-printed corneas win prestigious awards

Developed by biomedical engineers at Newcastle University, a new generation of prosthetic limb allowing the wearer to reach for objects automatically, without thinking, just like a real hand, won the prestigious Netexplo UNESCO Award in 2018.

The bionic hand is fitted with a camera which instantaneously takes a picture of the object in front of it, assesses its shape and size and triggers a series of movements in the hand. This innovation has improved responsiveness of artificial limbs, with the ‘seeing’ hand reacting 10x quicker than other prosthetic hands and more closely mirroring the fluid movement of a real hand.

Also in 2018, a technology developed by scientists at Newcastle University allowing human corneas to be 3D printed won Gold at the 2018 London Design Awards. Printed in just 10 minutes, these corneas can prevent blindness and combat the worldwide shortage of corneas to transplant to the 15 million people requiring eye surgery.

2018 – A different kettle of fish

An exploration of one of the deepest places on Earth identified three new species of the elusive Snailfish. Newcastle University colleagues Dr Alan Jamieson and Dr Thomas Linley were part of the expedition to the Atacama Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

2019 – Geordie cancer drug approved for the NHS

An ovarian cancer treatment, developed by scientists at Newcastle University, was approved for use on the NHS in 2019. From initial discoveries made in Chemistry, Rubraca® was largely developed in Newcastle.

Rubraca® is a very well-tolerated oral treatment which gives women better quality of life for longer, without the sometimes debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. It has been shown to significantly delay progression of the cancer after chemotherapy and delay subsequent chemotherapy treatment. 

2021 – Redefining remission for type 2 diabetes

Once thought to be an incurable, lifelong condition, research by Newcastle’s Professor Roy Taylor has proven that Type 2 Diabetes can be reversed. His research has been pivotal in identifying the causes of Type 2 diabetes and showing how weight loss can reverse the condition. More recently, further research has been able to show that remission from Type 2 diabetes is also possible for those with lower BMIs.

Professor Taylor’s findings have since been incorporated by the NHS who are currently running a pilot to help effectively treat patients with Type 2 diabetes and significantly reduce costs.

250,000 people. One community. Infinite possibilities.

This summer, our alumni community will reach 250,000 members around the world.

Spanning more than 186 countries, Newcastle alumni are having a great impact on society and business around the world.