Features Deputy Editor, Alexandra Baff, looks at some of the University's most famous and important alumni over the years. She looks at a range of alumni, including some who have gone on to make discoveries in mathematics and physics, and others who volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers during World War One. All of these past students have had an impact on the world and some are still impacting it today despite having studied at the University centuries ago.
When I am asked where I go to university, I already know what the response to my answer will be. “Oh, where William met Kate!” From the moment I applied to St Andrews in my final year of high school, this was what I became accustomed to associating the University of St Andrews with. However, it seems unfair to only think of Prince William and Kate Middleton as the University’s most important alumni when the university has produced many famous authors, politicians and scientists. So, I decided to do some research and look into some of the University’s most interesting alumni and what they did with their lives after graduating.
Leader of Scotland’s Reformation, this theologian and writer is famous for his role in the creation of modern Scotland and his belief in violent revolution against the Catholic Church. It is believed that he studied theology at the University of St Andrews around 1529 before being ordained in 1536 before then becoming a notary and a tutor to the sons of the Scottish nobles. For a time, Knox even served Edward VI of England as a royal chaplain, but he was forced to leave England when Mary I came to the throne and reinstated Catholicism. However, Knox is also notoriously famous for his dislike of women in power in what is perhaps his most famous pamphlet, The First Blast of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment of Women. A complicated man, Knox is thought of as one of the greatest writers to come from Scotland but also one of the most problematic in terms of his view on women and Catholicism.
Author and playwright Fay Weldon studied psychology and economics at St Andrews and graduated in 1952. She published her first book, The Fat Woman’s Joke, in 1967 and this marked the beginning of a successful career in writing, having now published over thirty novels as well as newspaper articles and presenting radio and television shows on the BBC. Weldon says that she wanted to write stories that gave a voice to women who were often overlooked in the media because they did not fit into society’s standards of beauty. Her work has earned her many awards for both her tv shows and novels and was even awarded a CBE in 2011 for her contribution to the arts.
Wildlife conservationist and television presenter, Douglas-Hamilton was born in Kenya, and it was here that her love for animals and wildlife flourished. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with a first-class degree in Social Anthropology and went on to work with Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia before joining her father’s charity, Save the Elephants. She was then spotted by the BBC and began her career as a television presenter and producer on wildlife documentaries, helping to make others aware of the challenges that our natural world is facing.
Lara Lettice Johnson
The oldest daughter of the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Lara Lettice Johnson graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature and Latin from St Andrews. Since graduating, Johnson has begun an impressive career in journalism. She also writes for British Vogue as well as launching her own publication in 2016, which focuses on mental health and creativity. Following in her father’s footsteps, she also occasionally writes for the Tory magazine, The Spectator.
Former First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party, Salmond studied Economics and Medieval History at St Andrews and graduated with a 2:2. Salmond became the leader of the SNP in 1990 and in 1998 won the Spectator Award for Political Strategist of the Year. Salmond resigned from the role of First Minister in 2014 after the results of the Scottish Independence Referendum where the majority of Scots voted to remain as part of the UK. Still, he continued to stand as an MP until he lost his seat as the member of Parliament for Gordon in 2017. Salmond has since hosted his own television show, The Alex Salmond Show.
Born near Leven in Fife, Wilson immigrated to Philadelphia in 1766 and became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. He was elected twice to the Continental Congress and was one of the six original justices in the Supreme Court of the United States. Despite having studied at the universities of St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Wilson never managed to achieve a degree at any of these three institutions. Still, it was his education on the Scottish Enlightenment that inspired him to immigrate over the pond.
After attending the University of St Andrews, Ndegwa became the first post-independence Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet in Kenya. He was also the first African Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya and released a memoir in 2006 titled, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story. His memoir tells how he herded cattle as a young man before going on to study at university level. It was whilst he was studying in St Andrews that Ndegwa found his passion for golf and was appointed as the patron to the Kenya Golf Union in 1973 and it was in this role that Ndegwa helped to save many Kenyan golf courses, which were being removed at the time as many saw them as colonial relics and wanted the courses to be closed down.
This famous Scottish children’s author was not actually able to attend classes at the University of St Andrews because women were not allowed to be admitted into British universities at the time, but she managed to achieve the Lady Literate in Arts qualification from St Andrews in 1887. She is most famous for writing her 1899 children’s story, The Story of Little Black Sambo. At the time of its publication, this text was seen as positively portraying Black characters. However, since its publication, it has been criticised for its use of racial slurs to describe people of colour, and the text has consequently been revised multiple times since its publication. After spending thirty years living in India, Bannerman returned to her home city of Edinburgh where she died in 1946 but is actually the grandmother of Tom Kibble, the physicist who discovered the Higgs-Kibble mechanism and the Higgs boson.
Margaret C. Davidson
Hailing from Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, Davidson was a leader of the Dornoch brand of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and was a volunteer nurse in France during World War One. She attended the University of St Andrews until 1902 and went on to become a Modern Languages teacher, following in the footsteps of her parents, who were also teachers. For her voluntary work as a nurse during the war, her name is listed on the First World War Roll of Honour.
A mathematician, astronomer and physicist, John Napier is best known as the man who discovered logarithms. He was enrolled at St Salvator’s College, St Andrews at the tender age of thirteen but it is believed that Napier left St Andrews to continue his education in Europe due to the poor quality of teaching that was a direct result of the religious turmoil taking place at the time of his matriculation. Napier did develop a strong anti-papal reading whilst studying at St Andrews and even claimed that the Pope was the antichrist. Napier has even had a university named after him, Edinburgh Napier University which gained its university status in 1993, it had previously been a technical college and now has over 15,000 enrolled in its courses.
Described as “the most profound intellectual sixteenth century Scotland produced” by historian Keith Brown, Buchanan was a humanist scholar and historian. He graduated from St Andrews with a B.A. in 1525 before going on to graduate with an M.A. from Scots College, University of Paris. He was also a tutor to the young Mary, Queen of Scots and was even appointed as the principal of St Leonard’s College at St Andrews by the Earl of Moray. Buchanan’s relevance is still felt today through his works of literature.
These are just a handful of some of St Andrews most famous alumni, but there are many more including James Black, Louise Minchin and King James the third of Scotland, who have all gone on to have an impact on society and produce great work after graduating from the bubble that is St Andrews.