24 groundbreaking events that happened during the Queen’s reign

When Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, she promised to rule for her whole life.

It was a commitment that never waivered and saw her on the throne for more than 70 years, over which time the world changed significantly.

During her reign, the Queen saw some of the most groundbreaking moments in human history within her seven decades of service; from wars and a pandemic, to technological developments and scientific breakthroughs.

Here, we breakdown some of the most significant events that Queen Elizabeth II witnessed during her legendary time as our monarch. 

1953: The discovery of DNA’s Double Helix 

There were an abundance of scientific breakthroughs during the Queen’s service, and in just her second year, scientists Francis Crick and James Watson published an article that claimed they had discovered what they called ‘the secret of life.’ 

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, a British chemist and crystallographer who is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA (Picture: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

From the University of Cambridge, the pair – along with other researchers – worked together to identify the now famous ‘double helix’ structure – aka the deoxyribonucleic molecule, also known as DNA. 

This gave rise to modern molecular biology, and helped to produce new and powerful scientific techniques, specifically DNA research, genetic engineering, rapid gene sequencing, and the mapping of the human genome.

James Watson gives a press conference, 20 October 1962, after being awarded the Nobel Prize for research on the structure of the double-helical structure of a section of DNA (Picture: Getty Images)

Major advances in science, including genetic fingerprinting and modern forensics, owe thanks to this discovery. 

British Crick was later awarded the Queen’s Medal, for his contribution to science. 

1954: The first organ transplant 

Shortly after, came the first organ transplant, a huge moment in medical history. The first successful operation – a kidney transplant  – was performed by Dr Joseph Murray in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Dr. Joseph E. Murray looks on as lab tech Pam Hubbell searches for good matches for kidney transplants at the hospital in Boston (Picture: Elizabeth Jones/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The technique has since saved over 400,000 lives worldwide, with more than 3,000 kidney transplants are now carried out in the UK each year.

1958: Opening of the motorway system

During the 70 years of The Queen’s reign, the world of highways and transportation changed significantly, with cars becoming accessible to the majority of the British population. Alongside this, the road network grew – and motorways came into being. 

An aerial view of the new construction of the M1 Motorway (Picture: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
Workers constructing the concrete arch of Bridge 52 on the M1, the London to Yorkshire Motorway, at Newport Pagnell (Picture: Historic England Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The M6, now Britain’s longest motorway, was first opened in December of 1958, originally an eight mile section of road, acting as a high speed bypass around the town of Preston, Lancashire. 

At the point of its inception, it had just two lanes in each direction, no safety barrier in the central reservation and no other technology. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan oversaw the opening, making the beginning of road travel in the UK more accessible than it had ever been before. 

1960: Development of the contraceptive pill 

A factory line of women packing boxes containing the contraceptive pill (Picture: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

The Queen has been witness to many huge moments for women’s reproductive rights – and the contraceptive pill is an important one. 

Considered one of the most significant medical advances of the 20th century, the contraceptive pill – a combination of the hormones oestrogen and progestin – was developed in the US in the 1950s by the American biologist Dr Gregory Pincus. It was later released in 1960, and within two years it was being used by 1.2million women. 

Two workers in the handling synthetic female sex hormones, wearing inflatable suits meant to protect them (Picture: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

The pill was introduced in the UK the following year, but initially was only available for married women. However, this changed in 1967 and the pill is now taken by over 3.1million women in the UK. 

1963: Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

As later dramatised in Season Two of The Crown, the Queen first met President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at a reception hosted at Buckingham Palace in June 1961. 

President John F Kennedy in the presidential limousine before his assassination (Picture: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In an event that shook the world, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. 

The Queen sent condolences and later invited Jacqueline Kennedy to Britain for the unveiling of the British national JFK memorial in Runnymede. 

The Queen of England shakes the hand of four-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr at the dedication ceremony to the late President John F. Kennedy (Picture: Bettmann Archive)

1966: England winning the World Cup

Although the Queen may have been more associated with sports like horse racing and polo, one of the most iconic photographs in British sporting history showed HRH, wearing a mustard coat and hat and long white gloves, shaking the hand of Sir Bobby Moore – the England captain who led the team to victory in the 1966 World Cup. 

Ray Wilson (holding the trophy) performing a lap of honour with the Charlton brothers at Wembley after England won the World Cup against West Germany 4-2 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The four-nil victory over West Germany on 30 July 1966 has still never been beaten, or equalled. 

Last year, ahead of the England team’s Euros final, the Queen released a statement, wishing them good luck ahead of their appearance at Wembley and reflecting on the importance of that landmark victory. 

Bobby Moore receives the Jules Rimet World Cup trophy from the Queen of England after beating West Germany in the final in 1966 (Picture: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

She said: ‘Fifty-five years ago I was fortunate to present the World Cup to Bobby Moore and saw what it meant to the players, management and support staff to reach and win the final of a major international football tournament.’

1967: Legalisation of homosexual acts and abortion

In 1967, the British parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act, legalising ‘homosexual acts’ if they were consensual, in private, and between individuals who were at least 21 years old – in England and Wales.

It was considered a landmark event for gay rights – although a far cry from equality and liberation. Scotland didn’t follow suit until 1980 and Northern Ireland until 1982.

Queen Elizabeth II as seen on TV in December 1967 (Picture: Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images)

It wasn’t until 2004, that the Civil Partnership Act allowed same-sex couples to legally enter into same-sex unions, and it would be another 10 years before same-sex marriage was legalised in Scotland, England and Wales. 

In another landmark event, the 1967 the Abortion Act was passed, which legalised abortion on certain grounds by registered practitioners. 

The Queen gave her royal assent to both laws.

1969: A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind

In 1969, NASA astronaut and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong became the first ever man to walk on the moon, during Apollo 11. Armstrong also flew on NASA’s Gemini 8 mission in 1966. 

Crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission (left to right) Commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot, Edwin Aldrin Jnr (Picture: Central Press/Getty Images)
Astronaut Edwin E. ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Jr. saluting the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission (Picture: NASA/AFP via Getty Images)

For obvious reasons, this was a groundbreaking moment for humanity – a giant leap for mankind, you might even say.

After his mission, the Queen met with Armstrong and his wife, who traveled to Buckingham Palace, as part of a world tour to meet global leaders and mark their successful mission.

1973: First mobile phone conversation

The first mobile phone call was made on April 3, 1973, by Motorola employee Martin Cooper. 

Motorola vice president John F. Mitchell shows how easily company’s newest product DynaTAC Portable Radio Telephone System can be used from heart of city (Picture: Bettmann Archive)

Using a prototype of what would become the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, Cooper reportedly stood near a 900 MHz base station on Sixth Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets, in New York City – and placed a call to New Jersey.

The mobile phone would go on to change the world as we know it, particularly with the introduction of the smartphone – the first of which, the IBM Simon and Nokia Communicator 9000, were released in 1994 and 1996 respectively

An unidentified woman helps a young girl to use a Motorola’s DynaTAC wireless portable telephone, 1973 (Picture: Motorola, Inc/United States Information Agency/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

The Queen reportedly used a Samsung featuring anti-hacker encryption by MI6. According to royal commentator, Jonathan Sacerdoti, she would mainly speak on her mobile phone to two people – her daughter, Princess Anne and her racing manager, John Warren.

1978: Birth of the first IVF baby

A year after the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, following 25 years on the throne, a new groundbreaking reproductive moment was recorded; and on July 25 1978, the world’s first IVF baby was born. 

The team who pioneered in-vitro fertilization holding the world’s first test tube baby Louise Joy Brown and gynaecologist Mr Patrick Steptoe (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
Louise Brown poses for photographs following a press conference to mark her approaching 40th birthday, 2018 (Picture Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Louise Brown was born at Royal Oldham Hospital, Lancashire, after the so-called ‘test tube’ procedure was developed by English physiologist Robert Edwards, in collaboration with two other scientists. 

In 2010, Edwards won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and a year later he was knighted by the Queen.

1979: Election of the UK’s first ever female prime minister 

Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first ever female prime minister, and served three consecutive terms in office, from 1979-1990.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attend a ball (Picture: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

During the period of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the Queen met with the prime minister weekly. They were, however, said to have a complicated relationship. 

The Queen reportedly disagreed with some of Thatcher’s policies, including her refusal to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, according to a 1986 report in the Sunday Times.

Theresa May meets Queen Elizabeth II as she visits Holyport College on November 28, 2014 (Picture: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth welcomes Liz Truss during an audience where she invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative party to become Prime Minister and form a new government (Picture: REUTERS)

But they did work together for over a decade, with the Queen later awarding Thatcher the prestigious Order of Merit. 

1969 – 1991: The advent of the Internet  

Queen Elizabeth has been head of state during a time of profound technological advancement. And there’s not much that has changed the state of the world more than the advent of the Internet.

Portrait of British computer scientist and engineer Tim Berners-Lee (Picture: Karjean Levine/Getty Images)

No one person invented the Internet – it occurred over a number of years, developed by a variety of scientists and engineers who initially brought their research together to create what was known as the ARPANET, the precursor to the World Wide Web.

And the Queen was more tech-enthusiastic than you might imagine. In fact, in 1976 she became the first monarch – and one of the first ever people – to ever send an email, during the early development stages of ARPANET, when visiting the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern.

This computer was used at CERN by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee to devise the World Wide Web (Picture: SSPL/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until 1989 that scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. In 2003, over 20 years after it was first born, nearly half of the UK residents had access to the Internet.

1989: Fall of Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War 

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall dividing East Germany and West Germany was dismantled by protesters, after a five-day gathering opposing the oppressive division. 

The fall of the Berlin Wall (Picture: John Hulme/Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The bringing down of the wall marked the end of the Cold War, and signified the fall of the iron curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Queen, of course, had her own part to play in the historic moments leading up to the end of the Cold War. Years of diplomacy had been crucial – as had the Queen’s role in warming diplomatic relations between the UK and the Soviet Union.  

Masked protesters of western leaders Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher kiss at a 1986 demonstration by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Picture: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Sitting among others in long grass a middle-class lady reads the Daily Mail newspaper during a lunchtime break at the Chelsea Flower Show, in London England (Picture: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor castle on April 7, 1989 (Picture: ANDRE DE WET/AFP via Getty Images)

In fact, just seven months before the Berlin Wall started to be dismantled – before it finally fell for good in 1991 – The Queen had hosted Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, on a diplomatic visit to Windsor Castle.

1993: Formation of the European Union

The Queen gave her official royal assent to The Maastricht Treaty, first signed in 1992 – officially establishing the European Union, that came into force in 1993. 

There were originally 12 member countries, including the United Kingdom (Picture: Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

There were originally 12 member countries, including the United Kingdom – and the EU evolved out of the European Economic Community (EEC), which partly aimed to prevent conflict after World War II. 

The Queen had always appeared to be pro-Europe, in an uncontentious manner, and was, of course, still head of state when the UK vote at referendum to leave its place in the EU in June 2016.

In 2018, she commented to the king and queen of the Netherlands that Britain was looking ‘toward a new partnership with Europe’ and added that shared values between Britain and Europe are ‘our greatest asset.’

1996: Cloning of Dolly the Sheep

Dolly the Sheep was the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell, and a procedure that led to widespread advancement with stem cell research.

Dolly the first genetically copied sheep is unveiled to the media at the Roslin institute near Edinburgh

Dolly the first genetically copied sheep is unveiled to the media at the Roslin institute near Edinburgh (Picture: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dolly was created and lived her life at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. One of the lead researchers, Ian Wilmut, received the Order of the British Empire from the Queen in 1999, and was knighted in 2008.

The cloned mammal produced several lambs during her lifetime, and was put to sleep after contracting a progressive lung disease, said to be unrelated to her cloning.

1998: Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, and marked the end of most of the violence related to The Troubles. 

Picture of British Prime Minister Tony Blair (R) US Senator George Mitchell (C) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (L) shaking hands after they signed the historic The Good Friday Agreement (Pictures: DAN CHUNG/AFP via Getty Images)
Burnt-out shells of buses in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, UK, March 1971 (Picture: John Minihan/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A mural in Derry (Picture: David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Citizens of both the Republican of Ireland and Northern Ireland voted in a referendum to approve the agreement.

The day after part of the measures went into effect, in 1999, Irish President, Mary McAleese, had lunch with the Queen in Buckingham Palace.

1999: Formation of the Scottish Parliament 

In 1997, the Scottish population voted for devolution – with 74% of votes cast in favour, and a turnout of 60%. 

Man carrying the national flag during the official opening of Scottish Parliament (Picture: Colin McPherson/Sygma via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth arrives to open the new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, 01 July 1999, with Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar (L), and the presiding officer David Steel (R) (Picture: IAN STEWART/AFP via Getty Images)

Previous proposals for a Scottish Parliament had fallen at a referendum in 1979, as although a majority of Scottish voters had backed the plans, the required threshold of 40% registration of voters was not met. 

This marked a period of significant change for the UK – and the Queen officially opened the parliament, on 1 July 1999, giving the assembly law making powers. 

Elizabeth has since spoken about the ‘deep and abiding affection’ she and her late husband, Prince Philip, shared for Scotland.

2001: 9/11

On the morning of 11 September 2001, 19 Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger planes in the United States.

A fiery blasts rocks the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City (Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The Queen attends a 9/11 memorial service (Picture: Jon Furniss/WireImage)

We are all familiar with what happened next – it was an event that rocked the entire world. 

Following the attacks, the Queen paid her own special tribute to the Americans living and working in Britain, as well as those who had been personally affected. 

For the first time in its history, the military band were authorised to play the American national anthem during the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, for the gathered crowds.  

2008: First Black US President

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain of become the 44th U.S. president, and the first African American elected to the White House, a momentous event for the US – and the world.  

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain of become the 44th U.S. president (Picture: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama pose for photographs with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during an audience at Buckingham Palace on April 1, 2009 (Picture: John Stillwell – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Since the Queen’s passing, the Obamas have made a heartfelt tribute, stating that they were ‘grateful’ to witness her reign and ‘dedicated leadership.’

The former president said: ‘Michelle and I were lucky enough to come to know Her Majesty, and she meant a great deal to us,’ adding that ‘she welcomed us to the world stage with open arms and extraordinary generosity’. 

2012: London Olympics

The world’s attention was focused on Britain in 2012 with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee taking place that summer, as well as the London Olympics – which the UK was hosting for the third time.

Queen Elizabeth II (R) and Jacques Rogge (L), President of the International Olympic Committee, attend the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games (Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II watches the morning session of the swimming at the Aquatics Centre during a tour of the Olympic Park on day one of the London 2012 Olympics Games on July 28, 2012 in London (Picture: Martin Rickett/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Queen’s appeared in a video played at the Games’ opening ceremony with co-star James Bond, which saw her skydiving into the Olympic Stadium before he declared the event to be open.

2016: Brexit 

In 2016, citizens of the United Kingdom voted to take their nation out of the European Union. 

Vote Leave campaign poster during the first day of a nationwide bus tour (Picture: Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Posters with campaign logos sit on a wall at the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign offices in London (Picture: Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The referendum saw David Cameron resign as prime minister, and Theresa May take over the position.

After years of negotiations, the UK finally withdrew, on January 21, 2020.

The Queen gave her royal assent to the bill that triggered the U.K.’s withdrawal – a monumental moment in the country’s history.

2020: Covid-19 Pandemic

Nobody could have foreseen the chaos that the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK would bring – and the knock on impact of it dominated much of the Queen’s final years, personally and professionally.

Queen Elizabeth II awards Captain Sir Thomas Moore with the insignia of Knight Bachelor at Windsor Castle on July 17, 2020 (Picture: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II appears on a screen via videolink from Windsor Castle (Picture: Victoria Jones-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II takes her seat during the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021 in Windsor, England (Picture: Jonathan Brady – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The lockdowns announced as a result saw the Queen broadcast only her fifth message to the nation, in her 70 year reign.

Other than her Christmas speech, she has only given a speech of this gravity during occasions including the beginning of the first Gulf War and the death of Princess Diana.

During her speech, the Queen reassured the nation with the heartfelt words: ‘We should take comfort that, while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.’


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