Utrecht University has included a Faculty of Science since 1815, but until the end of the nineteenth century it was a small affair, with a handful of professors and few students, most of whom were to become teachers. Professors were not yet supposed to specialize, although they all had their own fields of interest. Gerrit Moll was the one who started doing research in physics, in the early nineteenth century. He became known for his precision measurements of the speed of sound. Among his successors was the renowned C.H.D. Buys Ballot, who taught physics and astronomy but who became especially known for his work in meteorology. He also founded the Royal Meteorological Institute (KNMI).

In 1877 a new physical laboratory was opened at the Bijlhouwersstraat (near the Ledig Erf), which had excellent laboratory facilities for teaching and research. It would be the home of physics in Utrecht for nearly a century, until it moved to the Uithof campus in the 1960s.

From 1915 to 1940, L.S. Ornstein was professor of experimental physics (there were two professors at that time, experimental and theoretical physics). He greatly expanded the laboratory, focusing on spectrography. This was made possible by the excellent instruments of instrument maker W.J.H. Moll. Ornstein supervised no less than 94 PhD students, still a Dutch record. Many of them went to work for industry. By this time, the number of students increased rapidly, not least because of the increased career perspectives.

In the first half of the twentieth century, theoretical physics was taught by a succession of notable physicists, including George Uhlenbeck, H.A. Kramers and Léon Rosenfeld.

After 1945 the scale and scope of physics in Utrecht was greatly expanded.  New professors were appointed in new research fields such as nuclear physics, plasma physics and solid state physics. The close collaboration with the Rhijnhuizen institute for plasma physics (operated by FOM, the national organization for physics) was very important. Several collaborations with other national and international institutes were also initiated, including with CERN. The institute also operated its own particle accelerator.

New research topics kept being added, including biophysics, ‘physics of man’, and philosophical foundations of physics. The department of physics at various times also included the famous Utrecht institutes for astronomy, meteorology and oceanography.

The most notable research group, however, was theoretical physics, which included Martinus Veldman and Gerard ‘t Hooft, who together won the 1999 Nobel Prize "for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions”.

David Baneke


  • H.A.M. Snelders, ‘De Subfaculteit der Natuur- en Sterrenkunde’, in: H.W. von der Dunk, W.P. Heere en A.W. Reinink (red.), Tussen ivoren toren en grootbedrijf: de Utrechtse Universiteit 1936-1986 (Maarssen 1986) 401-408.
  • P. Faasse, Profiel van een faculteit. De Utrechtse bètawetenschappen 1815-2011 (Hilversum 2011).