Our academic history

We have a long and proud history of firsts at the University of Birmingham; we were the first – and are now one of the largest - civic universities in the UK. 

We were also the first UK University to, amongst other things:

Achievements and Nobel Prizes

Our history of firsts applies to our research too. For more than 100 years, our research has influenced how we live our lives. Birmingham is where pacemakers and plastic heart valves were developed, where the first artificial vitamin (Vitamin C) was synthesised, and where the cavity magnetron was developed, leading to applications such as radar and the microwave oven.  In addition, allergy vaccines were pioneered, the key components of artificial blood were synthesised, and the first clinical trials of the contraceptive pill outside the US were carried out, having a fundamental impact on the life for women worldwide.

As a founder member of the Universitas 21 global network of research universities, we are home to world-class researchers, the work of our staff and alumni has been recognised with 10 Nobel Prizes, across areas such as the arts, sport and public life, and three prizes were awarded in 2016 for Physics and Chemistry. We have been integral to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of recent times, such as the Higgs Boson and Gravitational Waves, and are pioneering new approaches to tackling some of the biggest global challenges facing society; from antibiotic resistance and maternal health to conflict resolution and access to education.  

Today, the University continues to build on this pioneering heritage. We are still at the forefront of research, leading the field in many of the emerging disciplines of the 21st century, such as nanotechnology, gene therapy, robotics and the use of virtual reality in the study of archaeology. We are continually developing new initiatives to enrich our teaching and learning. We are constantly questioning.

Historic buildings

At the heart of our University are the redbrick buildings of Chancellor’s Court, the legacy of the vision of our first Chancellor, Joseph Chamberlain.

Designed by leading architect Sir Aston Webb (who also designed other British landmarks such as the façade of Buckingham Palace and the Victoria and Albert Museum), the majority of the work finished in 1909 and remains the focal point of our campus. In the centre of the courtyard is the soaring clock tower, affectionately known as ‘Old Joe’, which can be seen across the city of Birmingham: an emblem of the University’s prestige. The Chancellor’s Court semi-circle was fully completed with the opening of the Bramall Music Building in June 2012.

Other historic buildings include the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, a grade-two listed Art Deco building that was designed by Robert Atkinson in the 1930s and was opened in 1939 by Queen Mary. 

Black and white photo of a clockmaker standing next to Old Joe's giant clock face during its construction

Did you know?Old Joe clocktower against a blue sky with white fluffy clouds

  • The clock tower is 325 feet high; that’s 99.06 metres
  • It is the largest freestanding clock tower in the world
  • It is based on the Mangia Tower in Siena, Italy
  • The clock even has its own Twitter feed!

Learn more about Old Joe

A Modern Campus

We have expanded and improved our campus throughout the years, which has resulted in a range of architecture and iconic buildings. The Muirhead Tower is a good example of this, with its ‘brutalist’ architecture; sitting both with and against the traditional red brick on campus. Modern architecture, such as the Teaching and Learning Building, which opened in 2019, complements the rich and varied buildings of our past.

Exterior of the University of Birmingham's Teaching and Learning building

While preserving our rich heritage, we are committed to developing a modern, vibrant campus to give our students, staff and visitors the very best experience. We will continue on our journey to both expand and improve our teaching and research facilities.