College of Science & Engineering

History of the College

In 1919 the area known as West Mains Farm was purchased by the University for the relocation and expansion of its science departments.

In July 1920, His Majesty King George V laid the foundation stone for the first building; the Department of Chemistry, and so began the life of King's Buildings. The first classes were held in October 1922 and it was officially opened by HRH the Prince of Wales in December 1924.

A legacy of war

Not all departments were lucky enough to find themselves housed in new buildings. Geology initially moved from Old College into wooden huts that had previously provided wartime accommodation for US soldiers in St. Andrew Square. These same huts, after being vacated by Geology in 1931, were then put into use as the first King’s Buildings Union before the custom-made building was completed in 1939.

Philanthropic legacy

In 1921 the University launched an appeal for the erection of classrooms and laboratories on the site and many of the iconic buildings that are still used today came into being because of generous benefactors. The Zoology building was partial funded by a donation of £20,000 from Laurence Pullar, Engineering benefited from £50,000 from James Sanderson and Geology received a donation of £50,000 from Sir Alexander Grant.

On the roof

Many of the University’s most famous graduates spent time studying at King’s Building campus including Olympic 400m gold medallist Eric Liddell, who was rumoured to have trained on the roof of the Joseph Black Building, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1924.

Darwin development

Now home to 37 buildings including the Noreen and Kenneth Murray Library, which opened in July 2012, the campus continues to expand, with the construction of new buildings and refurbishment of old ones. The next stage in the evolution of the campus is the redevelop of parts of the School of Biological Science including the refurbishment and re-cladding of the Darwin Tower.


View our King's Buildings History Exhibition


From Natural Philosophy to Science and Engineering

In the sixteenth century science was taught as 'natural philosophy'.

The seventeenth century saw the institution of the University Chairs of Mathematics and Botany, followed the next century by Chairs of Natural History, Astronomy, Chemistry and Agriculture.

During the eighteenth century, the University was a key contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment and it educated many of the leading scientists of the time.

It was Edinburgh's professors who took a leading part in the formation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. In 1785, Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry and discoverer of carbon dioxide, founded the world's first Chemical Society.

The nineteenth century was a time of huge advances in scientific thinking and technological development. The first named degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Science were instituted in 1864, and a separate 'Faculty of Science' was created in 1893 after three centuries of scientific advances at Edinburgh. Chairs in Engineering and Geology were also created.

In 1991 the Faculty of Science was renamed the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and in 2002 we became the College of Science and Engineering, one of three Colleges making up the University of Edinburgh.

(With thanks to Ronald M Birse.)

Eminent staff and alumni

From our inception we have produced Nobel laureates, Olympic medalists, eminent scientists and engineers, and innovators and inventors.

The University can claim eight Nobel laureates in scientific fields.

Other eminent scientific staff and alumni include:

  • Charles Darwin
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, who followed his family's tradition and studied engineering (rather unhappily, by some accounts)
  • Daniel Rutherford, who discovered nitrogen
  • Olympic medallist Eric Liddell
  • Alexander Graham Bell
  • James Hutton, one of the greatest 18th century scientists who is regarded as the founder of our modern understanding of the Earth


Notable recent staff and alumni

Some of our more recent staff and alumni have included:

  • Malcolm Longair, former Astronomer Royal
  • Ken Murray, the biologist who developed the Hepatitis B vaccine
  • Anneila Sargent, Director of the Owens Valley Observatory
  • Aubrey Manning, zoologist and television science presenter