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Copley Medal

The Copley Medal is a prestigious annual award given to a scientist by the Royal Society (London). The award is for "outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science." Sir Godfrey Copley (1653 - 1709), a wealthy landowner and member of the Royal Society from 1691, made a £100 donation to the society in 1709 "in trust for the Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge". A second donation of £1666 was made by Sir Joseph William Copley in 1881. The medal today is silver gilt and comes with a £5000 cash award.

From 1736 till 1831, the conditions were receiving the award were changed to "a medal or other honorary prize should be bestowed on the person whose experiment should be best approved". In 1831, the conditions were changed to "the medal would be awarded to the researcher that the Royal Society Council decided most deserved it".

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An example of the Copley Medal (image courtesy of

The first time it was awarded was to Stephen Gray in 1731, who won it again in 1732. The most recent winner was Peter Higgs, in 2015. Dorothy Hodgkin won the award in 1976, and is still the only female recipient. The winner of the most medals was John Theophilus Desaguliers (1734, 1736, 1741). The medal has been awarded 278 times in 285 years: to one or more recipients every year since 1731, except for 20 years (all before 1834) in which no award was given. The medal has been awarded to two people in 11 years (all between 1783 - 1840), and three people in 1766. Since 1841 (Georg Ohm), the medal has been awarded to a single person every year.

A Selection of Recipients

1731 + 1732Stephen GrayPhysicsElectrical conductance and electrostatics
1734 + 1736 + 1741John Theophilus DesaguliersPhysicsExperimentational techniques
1737John BelchierMedicineStudy of skeleton growth and development
1738James ValoueCivil engineeringEngine for driving pile foundations
1739Stephen HalesBotany, chemistry, physiologyBlood pressure, kidney stones, meat preservation
1740Alexander StuartMedicineMuscular motion
1742Christopher MiddletonNavigationNorth-West passage attempt
1743Abraham TrembleyBiologySwiss naturalist, study of polyps, experimental zoology
1744Henry BakerMicroscopyStudy of crystallization of salts
1745William WatsonBotany and PhysicsElectricity, Leydan Jar experiments
1746Benjamin RobinsPhysicsBallistics and military engineering
1747Gowin KnightPhysicsMagnetism
1748James BradleyAstronomyMotion of fixed stars
1749John HarrisonNavigationLongitude, using accurate chronometers
1753Benjamin FranklinPhysicsElectricity
1757Charles CavendishPhysicsThermometers
1766Henry CavendishChemistryComposition of air
1772Joseph PriestleyChemistryGas experiments
1776James CookMedicineNutrition and health of crews on long voyages
1781William HerschelAstronomyDiscovery of Uranus
1794Alessandro VoltaPhysicsElectricity, pile battery
1805Humphry DavyChemistryDiscoveries of alikali and alkaline earth metals
1808William HenryChemistryHenry's Law: absorption of gases by water
1829Hans Christian OerstedPhysicsElectro-magnetism
1821 and 1847John HerschelAstronomyObservations and astronomical tables
1832 and 1838Michael FaradayPhysicsElectricity, magnetic and electrical fields
1832Siméon Denis PoissonPhysicsNouvell theorie del'Action Capillaire
1837Antoine César BecquerelPhysicsElectrical influence on growth of metallic sulphurets
1838Carl Friedrich GaussPhysics/MathematicsMathematical researches in magnetism
1839Robert BrownBiologyVegetable impregnation
1841Georg OhmPhysicsElectrical currents
1832Michael FaradayPhysicsElectricity, magnetic and electrical fields
1851Richard OwenPaleontologyComparative anatomy and fossils
1852Alexander von HumboldtPhysics'Terrestrial Physics'
1855Léon FoucaultPhysicsExperimental physics
1858Charles LyellGeologyElectricity, magnetic and electrical fields
1860Robert BunsenChemistryGaseous analysis
1863Adam SedgwickGeologyPalaeozoic Series of rocks and Devonian System
1864Charles DarwinBiologyGeology, zoology and botanical physiology
1868Charles WheatstonePhysicsAcoustics, optics, electricity and magnetism
1870James Prescott JoulePhysicsDynamical theory of heat
1873Hermann von HelmholtzPhysicsPhysics and physiology
1874Louis PasteurMedicineFermentation and pelerine
1883William ThomsonPhysicsUniversal dissipation of energy, theories of electricity and thermodynamics
1870James Prescott JoulePhysicsDynamical theory of heat
1888Thomas Henry HuxleyBiologyMorphology and histology of vertebrates
1892Rudolf VirchowBiologyPathology, pathological anatomy, prehistoric archeology
1902Joseph ListerMedicinePhysiological and pathological research
1905Dmitri MendeleevChemistryPeriodic table
1907Albert MichelsonPhysicsOptics (Interferometer experiment)
1908Alfred Russel WallaceBiologyNatural selection and evolution
1911George DarwinAstronomyTidal theory and planet motion
1914Joseph John ThomsonPhysicsAtomic model
1915Ivan PavlovPhysiologyDigestion and nervous system
1918Hendrik LorentzPhysicsMathematical physics
1922Ernest RutherfordPhysicsRadioactivity and atomic structure
1925Albert EinsteinPhysicsRelativity and quantum mechanics
1929Max PlanckPhysicsQuantum theory
1930William BraggPhysicsCrystallography and radioactivity
1938Niels BohrPhysicsAtomic theory and quantum mechanics
1940Paul LangevinPhysicselectron theory in magnetism, electricity in gases
1950James ChadwickPhysicsNuclear physics, atomic energy, discovery of the neutron
1952Paul DiracPhysicsParticle dynamics and quantum mechanics
1961Hans Adolf KrebsBiologyBiochemistry, ornithine, tricarboxylic acid and glyoxylate cycles
1966William Lawrence BraggPhysicsX-ray diffraction
1975Francis CrickBiologyDNA structure, molecular biology
1976Dorothy HodgkinChemistryPenicillin, vitamin B12, insulin
1977Frederick SangerBiologyChemical structure of proteins, nucleic acids
1984Subrahmanyan ChandrasekharPhysicsStellar structure, radiation, hydrodynamic stability, relativity
1990Abdus SalamPhysicsUnification of electromagnetic and weak forces
1991Sydney BrennerBiologyMolecular genetics, developmental biology, human genome
1993James WatsonBiologyDNA structure, molecular biology
2005Paul NurseBiologyCell biology
2006Stephen HawkingPhysicstheoretical cosmology, black holes, Hawking radiation
2008Roger PenrosePhysicsMathematical physics, general relativity, cosmology, black holes, big bang
2013Andre GeimPhysicsTwo-dimensional atomic crystals, artificial heterostructures
2014Alec JeffreysBiologyVariation and mutation in the human genome
2015Peter HiggsPhysicsParticle physics, Higgs boson

Content © Andrew Bone. All rights reserved. Created : February 6, 2016 Last updated :March 6, 2016

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