Cavendish Laboratory

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The Cavendish Laboratory is the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, and is part of the university's School of Physical Sciences. It was opened in 1874 as a teaching laboratory.

The Department is named to commemorate British chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish for contributions to science[1] and his relative William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, who served as Chancellor of the University and donated money for the construction of the laboratory.[2] Professor James Clerk Maxwell, the developer of electromagnetic theory, was a founder of the lab and became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics.[3]

The Duke of Devonshire had given to Maxwell, as Head of the Laboratory, the manuscripts of Henry Cavendish's unpublished Electrical Works. The editing and publishing of these was Maxwell's main scientific work while he was at the laboratory. Cavendish's work aroused Maxwell's intense admiration and he decided to call the Laboratory (formerly known as the Devonshire Laboratory) the Cavendish Laboratory and thus to commemorate both the Duke and Henry Cavendish.[4]

The current head of the Cavendish is Andy Parker.[5] The Cavendish Professorship of Physics is currently held by Sir Richard Friend.

As of 2011, 29 Cavendish researchers have won Nobel Prizes.[6]


Entrance, old site, Free School Lane
Southern aspect of the laboratory at its current site, viewed from across 'Payne's Pond'

The Cavendish Laboratory was initially located on the New Museums Site, Free School Lane, in the centre of Cambridge. After perennial space problems, it moved to its present site in West Cambridge in the early 1970s. The oak door of the new Cavendish Laboratory is known for its inscription from the Book of Psalms in the Bible: "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein."[7]

Physical Chemistry (originally the department of Colloid Science under Eric Rideal) had left the Cavendish site earlier, subsequently locating as the Department of Physical Chemistry (under RG Norrish) in the then new chemistry building with the Department of Chemistry (under Lord Todd) in Lensfield Road: both chemistry departments merged in the 1980s.

Nuclear physics[edit]

In World War II the laboratory carried out research for the MAUD Committee, part of the British Tube Alloys project of research into the Atomic Bomb. Researchers included Nicholas Kemmer, Allan Nunn May, Anthony French, Samuel Curran and the French scientists including Lew Kowarski and Hans von Halban. Several transferred to Canada in 1943; the Montreal Laboratory and some later to the Chalk River Laboratories.

The production of plutonium and neptunium by bombarding uranium-238 with neutrons was predicted in 1940 by two teams working independently: Egon Bretscher and Norman Feather at the Cavendish and Edwin M. McMillan and Philip Abelson at Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.


The Cavendish Laboratory has had an important influence on biology, mainly through the application of X-ray crystallography to the study of structures of biological molecules. Francis Crick already worked in the Medical Research Council Unit, headed by Max Perutz and housed in the Cavendish Laboratory, when James Watson came from the United States and they made a breakthrough in discovering the structure of DNA. For their work while in the Cavendish Laboratory, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, together with Maurice Wilkins of King's College London, himself a graduate of St. John's College, Cambridge.

The discovery was made on 28 February 1953; the first Watson/Crick paper appeared in Nature on 25 April 1953. Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory, where Watson and Crick worked, gave a talk at Guy's Hospital Medical School in London on Thursday 14 May 1953 which resulted in an article by Ritchie Calder in the News Chronicle of London, on Friday 15 May 1953, entitled "Why You Are You. Nearer Secret of Life." The news reached readers of The New York Times the next day; Victor K. McElheny, in researching his biography, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution, found a clipping of a six-paragraph New York Times article written from London and dated 16 May 1953 with the headline "Form of `Life Unit' in Cell Is Scanned." The article ran in an early edition and was then pulled to make space for news deemed more important. (The New York Times subsequently ran a longer article on 12 June 1953). The Cambridge University undergraduate newspaper Varsity also ran its own short article on the discovery on Saturday 30 May 1953. Bragg's original announcement of the discovery at a Solvay conference on proteins in Belgium on 8 April 1953 went unreported by the British press.

Sydney Brenner, Jack Dunitz, Dorothy Hodgkin, Leslie Orgel, and Beryl M. Oughton, were some of the first people in April 1953 to see the model of the structure of DNA, constructed by Crick and Watson; at the time they were working at Oxford University's Chemistry Department. All were impressed by the new DNA model, especially Brenner who subsequently worked with Crick at Cambridge in the Cavendish Laboratory and the new Laboratory of Molecular Biology. According to the late Dr. Beryl Oughton, later Rimmer, they all travelled together in two cars once Dorothy Hodgkin announced to them that they were off to Cambridge to see the model of the structure of DNA.[8] Orgel also later worked with Crick at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.


Areas in which the Laboratory has been very influential since 1950 include:-

Currently, there are 15 research groups including the following recent additions since 2007:

Nobel Prize–winning Cavendish researchers[edit]

Plaque, at old site

Cavendish professors of physics[edit]

The Cavendish Professors were the Heads of the Department up to Professor Pippard, when the roles were made separate.


  1. ^ "Professor and Laboratory ", Cambridge University
  2. ^ The Times, 4 November 1873, p. 8
  3. ^ Dennis Moralee, "Maxwell's Cavendish", from the booklet "A Hundred Years and More of Cambridge Physics"
  4. ^ "James Clerk Maxwell", Cambridge University
  5. ^
  6. ^ [1] — Nobel Prize Winners who have worked for considerable periods of time at the Cavendish Laboratory
  7. ^ Rigden, John S.; Stuewer, Roger H (29 May 2009). The Physical Tourist: A Science Guide for the Traveler. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 1. ISBN 9783764389338. Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Olby, Robert, Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2009, Chapter 10, p. 181 ISBN 978-0-87969-798-3

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°12′33.35″N 0°05′31.24″E / 52.2092639°N 0.0920111°E / 52.2092639; 0.0920111