The third part of the countdown of the top 10 Copley Medal winners who have changed the world.

View of the Earth's atmosphere from space

Following from last week’s blog, on the background of the announcement of the 2016 Copley Medal winner; Dr Richard Henderson FMedSci FRS, today we finish our countdown of the top 10 Copley Medal winners who have changed the world. In the last few weeks we have brought to you some of the most influential scientists the world has ever seen, who bought their research and discoveries to the Royal Society and are still astounding us as an audience today. This week we will focus on Dimitri Ivanovich Medeleev, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Frederick Sanger and Niels Bohr, culminating our countdown of Copley Medal winners through history.

However there are many more important and awe-inspiring Copley Medal winners to explore, 285 years’ worth to be exact. So as the Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, states don’t take our word for the top 10 and choose your own via the Copley Medal page which has a complete list of all of the Copley Medal winners from 1731 to 2016. You can tweet us your favourites using the hashtag #RSmedals. We hope you have enjoyed these blogs and continue to follow our fantastic Copley Medal winners for years to come.


Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, awarded the Copley Medal in 1905, was born into a large family in a Russian province of Siberia. After the death of his father, they moved to St Petersburg, where Mendeleev trained to be a teacher. He showed a flair for science, and had published several research papers before the age of 20. He went on to study for a master’s degree in chemistry, before joining the faculty at Heidelberg University.

At the time, the landscape of chemistry was patchy, with very little standardisation across the field. Mendeleev began to explore the 70 known elements, and quickly realised that they could be ordered by their atomic weight. He also showed that elements with similar properties could be grouped, and his Periodic Table was born, remaining the most important chemistry reference there is.

Mendeleev was so confident in his findings that he left gaps in the table, and predicted the properties of the elements that would fill them. Over time, this allowed scientists to search for particular elements, gradually filling the gaps. In early 2016, four new elements were confirmed, completing the seventh row of the Periodic Table.


Niels Bohr, awarded the Copley Medal in 1938, was born in Copenhagen in 1885 and studied at Copenhagen University majoring in Physics. He introduced and developed the famous Bohr model, utilising theories by Ernest Rutherford and Max Planck on nuclear structure and quantum theory, depicting an atom as a small positively charged nucleus surrounded by electrons moving in circular orbits around it. He went on to develop this work and played a fundamental role in the understanding of atomic structures and quantum theory.

Bohr also campaigned to establish an Institute of Theoretical Physics in the 1920’s as a focal point for research into quantum mechanics. He was renowned in the Second World War for his efforts in helping refugees escaping Nazi occupation. He also went to exceptional steps to prevent scientific memorabilia being destroyed. For fear of losing them, he dissolved the Nobel Prizes of several colleagues in aqua regia, hiding them at the Institute until after the war, when the gold was precipitated and the medals re-formed by the Nobel Foundation. In recognition of his contributions to science, Bohr was bequeathed a house by the heir to the Carlsberg breweries, with a unique feature of having a direct pipeline of free beer from the brewery next door!


Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, awarded the Copley Medal in 1976, was born in Cairo to a family of archaeologists, showing an interest in science at an early age. Encouraged by her parents, Crowfoot Hodgkin began to produce crystals from everyday chemicals at the age of ten. She went on to read chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, where she spent much of her career.

X-ray crystallography was a new imaging technique at the time of Crowfoot Hodgkin’s PhD studies, but working with her mentor John Desmond Bernal, she became the first in the world to ‘photograph’ a protein called pepsin. She went on to develop protein x-ray crystallography as its own field, and it allowed her to unpick the structure of some of the most famous biomolecules – vitamin B12, penicillin and insulin.

Crowfoot Hodgkin was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on vitamin B12 and penicillin, followed by the Copley Medal in 1976. Her improvements to x-ray crystallography transformed biochemistry, allowing countless scientists to understand the structure and functions of proteins in a new way. In fact, our current Copley Medal winner, Dr Richard Henderson FMedSci FRS, utilised Crowfoot Hodgkin’s techniques with x-ray crystallography in his early work, first analysing bacteriorhodopsin, a protein in cell membranes, and going on to pioneer the development of the electron microscope as an alternative method of imaging. In addition to her achievements in the lab, Crowfoot Hodgkin travelled the world, giving talks about insulin and its role in diabetes.

Frederick Sanger, awarded the Copley Medal in 1977, was born and raised in a small village in Gloucestershire before going on to study natural sciences at Cambridge University. He remained at Cambridge University for his whole life and it was here that he elucidated the amino acid structure of a peptide, bovine insulin. Following this work, he concluding that every protein is made up of a unique sequence of amino acids. He went on, modifying the techniques he had used for analysing the sequence of insulin, to sequencing RNA and later DNA, inventing the “Sanger Method” which allowed for large sequences of DNA to be analysed rapidly and accurately (3,000,000,000 base pairs long, 500 base pairs at a time).

The Sanger Institute, on the outskirts of Cambridge, was founded in 1992 by the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council in Sangers name and in now one of the largest genomic research centres. Through development of the “Sanger Method”, the entire genome has now been sequenced opening up a wealth of knowledge and possibilities for genetic engineering and medical therapies; with the potential of enabling doctors to diagnose genetic diseases and predisposition to various conditions including cancer before they develop.


  • Holly Pattenden and Laurie Winkless

    Holly Pattenden and Laurie Winkless