Dennis Sandgathe, Johnian Scholar

October 05, 2023
New Court

This past Spring, I spent Easter Term at St John’s College at Cambridge University as a Beaufort Visiting Fellow which means I have become a lifetime member of the college, a ‘Johnian’.

Of the 31 colleges at Cambridge, St John’s is one of the older ones. It was established in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry the VII). There are several older colleges including Pembroke, founded in 1347, where our own Jon Driver spent his undergrad. As at Oxford and Durham Universities, the colleges are self-contained, private institutions completely separate from the university. A student taking a degree at Cambridge will also become a member of one of the colleges which becomes their home where they live, eat and socialize. The colleges also have a contingent of fellows - lifetime fellows, not visiting fellows like me – who are prominent academics in their fields and may also be professors or lecturers at the university. St John’s has more fellows than most, about 150 men and women, who represent all areas of academic learning and live in or near the college and provide weekly tutoring for their students.

Bridge of Sighs over the River Cam

Each year, St John’s invites a small number of researchers from institutions around the globe and from all areas of the sciences and humanities to live at the College for a term or two. I was lucky enough to be sponsored as a visiting fellow by Professor Graeme Barker, a fellow at the college, who does very similar researcher on Neandertals as I do.

There are two main things expected of visiting fellows. The first is that they spend their time at the college focused on a specific research project or writing a paper. St John’s provided me with a cottage near campus and I spent the term working on the monograph for a big excavation project my colleagues and I carried out from 2009 to 2014 at the cave site La Ferrassie in SW France. My wife joined me for a time and on weekends we would walk along or go punting on the River Cam, which runs through the college, or watched the ‘Bumps’ – the Cambridge term for the college rowing races.

Dining Hall

The second expectation is that visiting fellows spend a significant amount of time socializing with the regular fellows at St John’s: talking to them about your research and learning about theirs. This typically occurred over meals and turned out to be the most amazing part of my time there. One of the perks of being a visiting fellow was the dining privileges. Lunch, a relatively casual affair, involved joining the fellows in the 16th century Combination Room where we sat on either side of a very long mahogany table and learned about each other’s research while being served by a staff of professional butlers. For formal supper, fellows who wanted to eat ‘in hall’ at the high table would meet beforehand in the Green Room for a sherry and quick visit before being led in procession into the dining hall. Any students dining in hall that evening were already waiting, in their black gowns, along the three tables running the length of the hall while the fellows, in their black gowns, took their places along two raised tables at the end of the hall (picture Hogworts - a huge hall with a timber ceiling and lined with stain glass windows and paintings of ancient notables of the college – for example, Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather). Before students and fellows sat to eat, grace was read in Latin by the most senior fellow there. These old colleges are very strict about maintaining their traditions and one of these is that, when entering the dining hall, fellows cannot choose where to sit. You are required to take the next available seat along the table which ensures that you will be sat next to a different person most evenings. This rule meant I got to know, among others, a retired historian of Venetian architecture, a mathematician trying to organize chaos, a geneticist who had just discovered a new function of RNA, a retired philosopher, a scholar of Medieval languages, a Nobel laureate in biochemistry, an anthropologist studying death, a (quite famous) palaeontologist, and a scholar of ancient Hebrew. I met some seriously impressive academics from all areas of the sciences and humanities. An experience I don’t expect to top over the rest of my academic career.

One of my favourite traditions of the fellows at St John’s was Wine Circle. Every Sunday night after dinner, a small group of fellows and visiting fellows would gather in the Combination Room to drink wine and spend the evening chatting in candlelight (the Combination Room has no electric lights – in the evening it is lit with candles set along the lengths of the table and walls).

Combination Room