A countdown of Copley Medal winners who have changed the world we live in.

View of the Earth's atmosphere from space

This week heralds the announcement of a new inspirational Copley Medal winner. Congratulations to Dr Richard Henderson FMedSci FRS for being awarded this year’s medal for his fundamental and revolutionary contributions to the development of electron microscopy of biological materials, enabling their atomic structures to be deduced. You can find out more about Dr Henderson’s work by reading the related news story.

Turning back through the pages of history now for further scientific inspiration. In last week’s blog we gave a brief history of the Copley Medal and the first of our top 10 Copley Medal winners who have changed the world. This week, we continue through the 285 years of Copley Medal winners, with another four of the most influential scientists in the fields of chemistry, biology and physics; Jean-Baptiste Boussingault, Joseph Lister, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Wheatstone.

Make sure you come back next week we will finish off our countdown with our last 4 Copley Medal winners who have changed the world we live in. And if you want to add your own suggestions, why not tweet your top 10 at #RSmedals?


Benjamin Franklin, awarded the Copley Medal in 1753, has often been described as a ‘Renaissance Man’ – at different points through his life, he was a printer, publisher, author, scientist, inventor and diplomat, and helped to draft the first US Constitution. He stopped formal schooling aged 10, but this did not hold him back. It is hard to overstate Franklin’s impact on the world of science.

He showed that an ‘electric fluid’ could flow in certain materials but not in others, identifying the existence of conductors and insulators. He is famed for flying a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was electricity, and this led to his invention of the lightning rod. They are found – with a virtually unchanged design from Franklin’s original drawing – on every tall building today. Franklin also invented terms now common, including battery, electrify and charge. For his work on electricity, he was awarded the Copley Medal in 1753.

Aside from this, Franklin found time to invent the flexible catheter as well as bifocal glasses now worn by millions. He proved that storms do not always follow the prevailing wind, mapped the Gulf Stream and studied population growth.

Charles Wheatstone, awarded the Copley Medal in 1868, was born in Gloucester, the son of a musician and maker of musical instruments. He showed a strong interest in literature and physics at an early age and made many discoveries and inventions of influence in a variety of fields. This included inventing the concertina, the stereoscope, the ‘Polar clock’ and several different cyphers used in Cryptography.

Perhaps one of his most influential pieces of work, for which he was awarded the Copley Medal, was the invention of the telegraph. He elucidated that electrical signals could be conducted via a wire for great distances to be received as a message at the other end. Wheatstone was keen from the origin of his discovery that this technology should be shared for greater knowledge rather than to gain profit and introduced the electric telegraph to the scientific community via a series of lectures. The value of this invention was recognised by an eminent officer and entrepreneur, Mr William Cooke, and they formed a partnership pioneering the early telecommunications world.


Jean-Baptiste Boussingault, awarded the Copley Medal in 1878, was born in Paris in 1801. He studied and worked in the mining industry in France prior to being employed as a mining engineer in Venezuela. Within this role and in following years he conducted a wealth of research within the field of agriculture and mining chemistry. This included measuring the quantity of Nitrogen in food types and investigating how plants gather free nitrogen from the atmosphere (the basis of the Nitrogen cycle) and proposing methods of plant respiration. He investigated and developed the notion of crop rotation, manures and chemical fertilisers, recognising their value in increasing yield. This knowledge laid the foundations for modern agriculture, revolutionising farming methods to best utilise the environment and provide food for the world’s growing population.

In addition to his scientific work he was elected to the National Assembly in 1848 as a moderate republican, however due to his strong political opinions he was dismissed of his professorship several years later. This was met by such opposition amongst the scientific community, with the threat resignation in mass numbers, that he was reinstated.


Joseph Lister, awarded the Copley Medal in 1902, was born into a prosperous Quaker family in Essex, young Joseph showed an aptitude for maths, natural science, and languages. After his first degree, Lister joined the Royal College of Surgeons, before going on to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he worked as an assistant surgeon. When Lister moved to Glasgow, he came across a paper from the 1874 Copley Medallist, Louis Pasteur (featured in last week’s blog). In it was his theory that decay and fermentation were caused by living organisms – at the time, surgeons weren’t even required to wash their hands.

Lister began to apply Pasteur’s ideas to surgery, experimenting with wound dressings soaked in carbolic acid (now called phenol). Infection rates in hospital wards dropped dramatically, so Lister used his ‘antiseptic method’ to clean surgical instruments and operating tables. In a series of remarkable papers on this work, he became the first physician to implement the concept of sterile surgery. Although this approach has since been replaced by newer methods, the principle of keeping bacteria away from wounds remains the foundation of surgical medicine, and rightly earned Lord Lister the title of ‘father of antiseptic surgery’.


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    Holly Pattenden and Laurie Winkless