Zoology lab

A history of the Faculty of Science

Science in Sheffield since 1879

Library at Firth CourtThe study of pure science has played an important part in the history of the University of Sheffield, ever since its beginnings as Firth College, one of the several university colleges founded in the north of England towards the end of the 19th century. It developed out of the Cambridge University Extension Movement, a scheme designed to bring university teaching into large towns and cities, most of which lacked any university provision, as series of popular lectures. The success of these courses in Sheffield led Mark Firth, a local steel manufacturer, to establish the College in 1879 as a centre for teaching science and the arts, preparing for external degrees and with a view to eventually joining the Victoria University with colleges in other northern cities.

The college taught courses in the core sciences, like chemistry, biology and mathematics. Many people studied these courses to train as teachers. Female students were always treated equally and were admitted freely to science libraries and labratories and finished degrees, which was very rare at the time. Eminent scientists were involved with the university from the outset. The first three principals of Firth College were all scientists - A T Bentley, John Viriamu Jones, and William Mitchinson Hicks. Hicks, as well as being a great mathematician and physicist, oversaw the merging of Firth College with the medical school and local technical college, which led to it obtaining a Royal Charter and becoming the University of Sheffield in 1905.

Portrait of John Hicks

Over the 20th century, the University grew from these modest beginnings to one of the leading universities in the United Kingdom, with the Faculty of Science at the forefront, earning nobel prizes in Chemistry and Medicine and making huge contributions to the world and our understanding of science.

The presence of this history can be seen around campus. The Hicks building is named after William Hicks, and the Alfred Denny building is named after Alfred Denny, a biology lecturer with a huge zoological collection, which is still at the University today. The Dainton building and the Richard Roberts auditorium are named after Chemists. The oldest and most impressive of the University buildings, Firth Court, is named after Mark Firth. The Department of Pure Science was based in Firth Court from the very beginning, and the departments of Biomedical Science and Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, as well as the Faculty of Science administration, are fortunate enough to still be housed there today.


The Faculty of Science has played host to six Nobel Laureates in its history:

Other noteworthy scientists that have worked at the University include Douglas Northcott, Edward Mellanby and Grenville Turner.


Several prominent public figures have also graduated from the faculty of science, including:

  • Helen Sharman (Chemistry), the first British person in space
  • Jessica Ennis-Hill (Psychology), Heptathlete world champion
  • Sir Hans Kornberg (Chemistry), biochemist
  • Anthony Miles (Mathematics), first British Chess Grandmaster

Find out more

The national Archiveshub website gives particular mention to Sheffield's collections on the history of science. These collections cover the development of the Faculty, as well as the science itself. Material has been donated from academics at the University, including the papers of Sir Hans Krebs (biochemist, refugee from Nazism, and Nobel laureate) and and Lord Dainton (chemist, academic, public figure and former Chancellor of the University of Sheffield). Sheffield Archives also contains a lot of material about the University.

Archiveshub | Sheffield Archives