The college has long historical associations with medical teaching, especially due to its alumni physicians: John Caius (who gave the college the caduceus in its insignia) and William Harvey. Other famous alumni in the sciences include Francis Crick (joint discoverer, along with James Watson, of the structure of DNA), James Chadwick (discoverer of the neutron) and Howard Florey (developer of penicillin). Stephen Hawking, previously Cambridge's Lucasian Chair of Mathematics Emeritus, was a fellow of the college until his death in 2018. The college also maintains reputable academic programmes in many other disciplines, including law, economics, English literature and history.
Gonville & Caius is said to own or have rights to much of the land in Cambridge. Several streets in the city, such as Harvey Road, Glisson Road and Gresham Road, are named after alumni of the College. The college and its masters have been influential in the development of the university, founding other colleges like Trinity Hall and Darwin College and providing land on the Sidgwick Site, e.g. for the Squire Law Library.
The college was first founded, as Gonville Hall, by Edmund Gonville, Rector of Terrington St Clement in Norfolk in 1348, making it the fourth-oldest surviving college. When Gonville died three years later, he left a struggling institution with almost no money. The executor of his will, William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, stepped in, transferring the college to its current location. He leased himself the land close to the river to set up his own college, Trinity Hall, and renamed Gonville Hall The Hall of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Bateman appointed as the first Master of the new college his former chaplain John Colton, later Archbishop of Armagh.
By the sixteenth century, the college had fallen into disrepair, and in 1557 it was refounded by Royal Charter as Gonville & Caius College by the physician John Caius. John Caius was master of the college from 1559 until shortly before his death in 1573. He provided the college with significant funds and greatly extended the buildings.
During his time as Master, Caius accepted no payment but insisted on several unusual rules. He insisted that the college admit no scholar who “is deformed, dumb, blind, lame, maimed, mutilated, a Welshman, or suffering from any grave or contagious illness, or an invalid, that is sick in a serious measure”. Caius also built a three-sided court, Caius Court, “lest the air from being confined within a narrow space should become foul”. Caius did, however, found the college as a strong centre for the study of medicine, a tradition that it aims to keep to this day.
By 1630, the college had expanded greatly, having around 25 fellows and 150 students, but numbers fell over the next century, only returning to the 1630 level in the early nineteenth century. Since then the college has grown considerably and now has one of the largest undergraduate populations in the university. The college first admitted women as fellows and students in 1979. It now has over 110 Fellows, over 700 students and about 200 staff.
Gonville & Caius is one of the wealthiest of all Cambridge colleges with net assets of £180 million in 2014.