The institution was originally based at Fitzwilliam Hall (later renamed Fitzwilliam House), opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum in central Cambridge. Having moved to its present site in the north of the city, Fitzwilliam attained collegiate status in 1966. Female undergraduates were first admitted in 1978, around the time most colleges were first admitting women.
Six members of Fitzwilliam College have received a Nobel Prize. Notable alumni include the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi, the Indian revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Angus Deaton, and politician Lee Kuan Yew.
In 1869, Cambridge University altered its statutes to allow men who were not members of a college to become members of the University under the supervision of a censor, whose office was in Trumpington Street, opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. This provided students who could not afford to belong to a college with a base from which to study at the University, allowing them to be admitted to degrees, sit examinations and compete for scholarships. The name "Fitzwilliam" was chosen by the students at a meeting of the Non-Collegiate Amalgamation Club in the Spring of 1887 and, as a result, the University decreed that the house in Trumpington Street could be known as Fitzwilliam Hall. This became the headquarters of the Non-Collegiate Students Board and provided student facilities and limited accommodation. It was renamed Fitzwilliam House in 1922.
Due to its emphasis on academic ability rather than wealth, Fitzwilliam quickly attracted a strong academic contingent that included future Nobel Prize winners, Heads of State and important judicial figures. It developed a tradition in Medicine and established a reputation as one of the most internationally diverse institutions within the University.