Brief History

A Brief History

The Royal Society of South Africa has deep roots in South African scientific endeavour and its long history has been inextricably bound up with the prevailing socio-politics of the country. Since the Society’s birth, which – in some respects – can be traced to Cape Town in the 1820s, there have been times of re-establishment and reorganisation, changes in name, direction, structures, focus, strategy and disciplinary relationships. Its position in South Africa has been periodically reconceptualised, but it has always played the leading role in being the public face of South African science.

From the time that it received its formal Royal Charter in 1908, the Society has maintained its intellectual integrity, independence and interdisciplinarity. Without discrimination, it has fostered a national culture of science excellence through funding, education and public outreach. It has rewarded eminent scientists with Fellowships and medals and facilitated a spirit of camaraderie among academics who are generous with their knowledge. It has encouraged specialists to recognise excellence in fields other than their own. The impressive Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa has appeared regularly, brimful of significant original research. The journal has attracted a substantial international as well as local readership. In addition, the Society has amassed an important and accessible library.

The idea of a learned society was spawned in Cape Town in the 1820s with the establishment of the South African Literary Society. This Society was initiated by liberal, middle class Capetonians but, because it was seen as an organisation that might threaten the autocratic authority of Lord Charles Somerset – the Governor of the time – it did not survive more than a few months. Subsequently, in 1829, under a different set of circumstances in Cape Town that included a new Governor, a free press, a museum, astronomical observatory, library and botanical gardens, two new societies were founded.

These were the South African Institution and another South African Literary Society and, in 1832, the two merged to become the South African Literary and Scientific Institution. For a number of years, before petering out in the 1850s, this society drew together people who were interested in improving and sharing their knowledge, who publicised their findings and who endeavoured to discover the interesting scientific aspects of the Cape Colony and even of the subcontinent beyond.

For a time, from 1857 to 1877, the mantle of disseminating research and knowledge in Cape Town fell on The Cape Monthly Magazine. A large range of intellectual material was published in the journal, together with reports on Cape societies such as the Horticultural Society and the Albany Natural History Society. Increasingly, however, the editor focussed on literature and art and, in 1877, a new Society – the South African Philosophical Society – was founded to prioritise what was broadly referred to as ‘science’. The rules included of the Philosophical Society included the following: ‘Its object shall be to promote Original Research and record its results, especially as concerned with the Natural History, Physical Condition, History, Geography, Statistics, Industrial Resources, Languages and Traditions of South Africa.’ In a move to obtain political support, Sir Bartle Frere, the Governor of the Cape Colony at that time, was made President, and among the best known names on the Council with him were Vice-President Dr Langham Dale (educationist), Harry Bolus (botanist), Roland Trimen (lepidopterist) and John X. Merriman (later to be Prime Minister of the Cape). The Society began publication of the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society and became a vibrant part of Cape Town intellectual life.

After the Anglo-Boer War, when the idea of uniting the four colonies of South Africa was in the air, negotiations began in order to establish a Royal Society of South Africa with the proposing body being the South African Philosophical Society. This time the words ‘South Africa’ would specifically include the area extending from the Cape Peninsula to the Limpopo River. The process took a number of years, but in 1908 the Royal Charter was finally signed by King Edward VII. The Society’s first President was astronomer Sydney Hough and the vice-presidents were mathematician-educationist Thomas Muir and veterinarian Arnold Theiler.


It is often assumed that ‘science’ has a life of its own, that it exists independently from the surrounding socio-political and economic matrix. But scientific endeavour relates to the concerns of society at a particular place and time, and it frequently seeks to remedy or explain some of them. In addition, ‘science’ is not static and the perceptions and practice of science change over time. As far as South Africa is concerned, the Royal Society has met the challenges of intellectual change and transformation in the country. It has been the Royal Society of South Africa that has provided an institutional structure in which scientists in many fields have been able to generate and share their knowledge, to promote scientific excellence and education, to provide a research arena and ambience and, moreover, to perpetuate an institution of which South Africa can be justly proud. It has provided a unique institution in which experts in particular disciplines may engage with the general context of scientific evolution in the country.

The structure and administration of the Society has not remained the same throughout the century since it was founded. Part of the mission of the Society is to be ‘South African’ and this has meant meeting the scientific challenges of the sub-continent specifically. Although the broad provisions of the original charter and statements have stood the test of time, like the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of South Africa has been sufficiently flexible to adapt to new circumstances and to adjust its procedures and activities accordingly. The Charter and Statutes have determined that the Headquarters of the Society shall be in Cape Town and the Society thus has a fixed home. But formal branches in other parts of the country – Natal (1962), the Eastern Cape (1970) and the Transvaal (1975) – have, been most popular. Over the years changes have enabled the Society to grow in terms of electing more Fellows and attracting an increasing number of Members in different ways.

The ‘fields’ of science within the Society have also altered since 1908 and the following are now recognised as integral to the Society’s activities: the Life, Physical, Mathematical, Earth, Chemical, Medical, Engineering and Human Sciences. One of the most important research aspects of the Society in its early days was the amassing of a library – a collection of books and, perhaps even more scientifically valuable, journals, to which it either subscribed or obtained in exchange for the Society’s Transactions. So onerous did the administration of this burgeoning library become for the Royal Society of South Africa that in the 1930s the many thousands of volumes were given over to the University of Cape Town library to store, curate and conserve. From its inception the Society has provided material and intellectual support for research in many fields. In this regard, the Society’s support for interdisciplinary conferences, symposia, colloquia and workshops has contributed substantially to an understanding of the natural and intellectual environments. This type of contribution began in earnest 1964 when the Society reacted more directly to its multi-disciplinary mission and the idea of themes and subjects was suggested. These have been extremely successful and have played a part in bringing a range of specialist knowledge and acumen to bear on troublesome or intractable issues and integrating different research platforms.

In addition to a role of support for science and the initiation of new directions, policies or means of enhancing the image of scientists, the Royal Society of South Africa’s responsibility is also to publicise and disseminate sciences in all its aspects. In this regard the Society has continued the tradition inherited from the South African Philosophical Society of the regular publication of Transactions. After one hundred years of continuous publication, this journal can be mined as a history of science in South Africa. A glance at any contents page of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa will provide evidence of the manner in which diverse topics have coalesced to provide a scientific perspective on the region and added to the body of knowledge about it. This is not to say that individual scientists have not also published their research in specialist journals, but the Transactions has played a specific part in giving an overall view of science in South Africa. The fact that this journal has survived for a century, and weathered the dominance of specialist disciplines is to its credit – indeed, it is now well poised to take advantage of a growing interdisciplinary thrust.

In order to summarise the history and contribution of the Royal Society of South Africa one would have to include its continuing focus on the reward, encouragement and promotion of excellence; its readiness to compromise without losing sight of ethical and quality considerations; its attitude of social responsibility in science policy and education; its balancing the need to uphold tradition but keep up with modern developments; its maintenance of international, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary links; its distance from government and party politics and its dissemination of research results. It is the principal forum for peer appraisal in science: prestigious, individual and quality orientated. And it is the meeting ground of people who not only share their knowledge, but debate it, question it, appreciate it and who are dedicated to advancing it.