THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON AND THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF SOUTH AFRICA

by Jane Carruthers

 The nature of the relationship between the Royal Society of South Africa and the Royal Society of London is a question frequently asked of Fellows and Members of the Royal Society of South Africa. In 1977 Professor Archibald W. Sloan, leading physiologist at the University of Cape Town and then President of the Royal Society of South Africa, referred to their being ‘parent body’ and ‘offspring’. However, despite sharing the appellation ‘Royal Society’, the South African Society has no formal connection to its more famous namesake. Nevertheless, it is heir to many of its rich traditions and the two societies share a number of defining characteristics. For example, both are entirely independent of government and their organisational and administrative structures are very similar. Fellows are elected solely on the basis of their scholarly excellence and their contribution to ‘science’. The Obligation that Fellows sign on their induction is almost identical. And unlike many of the great European scientific societies, the London and the South African Royal Society have evolved with prevailing circumstances rather than having any grand ‘plan’ imposed upon them.

I thought that it would be of interest to provide a very brief history of the Royal Society of London in this series of historical vignettes. The Society originated in the ferment of the Enlightenment when, in the 1640s, a group of learned men often met at Gresham College in London to discuss their shared intellectual interests. In the political turbulence of the time, regular meetings became impossible and this original group came to an end in 1658. After the Restoration it was resuscitated in 1660 and called itself the ‘Society of Philosophers’, declaring that it would concentrate on what was referred to as the ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ philosophy. The man behind this Society was Sir Robert Moray who had encountered such organisations in Europe. Moray, who was close to Charles II, negotiated the King’s support so that the enterprise would be a ‘corporation’ with certain privileges including legal status, the right to accept donations and to allocate funds. Thus the Royal Charter (the first dated 15 July 1662, the second 22 April 1663) was crucial in providing protection, patronage and respectability under the new government. The King approved a coat-of-arms with the motto ‘Nullius in Verba’ [On the words of no-one, i.e. Take no one’s word for it] and gave the Society a bejewelled mace and property in London where meetings could be held.

The King’s association with the Society also gave noblemen the chance to show their loyalty to him by giving money to the ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ in return for Fellowships. (The word ‘natural’ was inserted to emphasise the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ knowledge.) Once it was royally recognised and financially supported, the Society had to generate interest, prove its worth and develop its prestige. It did so by producing its Philosophical Transactions, by becoming involved in publishing scientific treatises and books, by starting a museum and library, and by arranging gatherings at which lectures were presented and experiments conducted.

The Royal Society of London had a most promising start: royal patronage, committed wealthy Fellows, premier – and often charismatic – scientific leadership (including Isaac Newton) and energetic administration and management. But despite this promise, money was generally short and numbers soon dropped. As early as 1676 the Society was the butt of Thomas Shadwell’s satirical play ‘The Virtuoso’. Even the King’s interest waned. Fellows had to be encouraged to attend meetings, John Evelyn for instance, exhorting his friend Samuel Pepys – at one time President of the Society and a ‘bountifull benefactor’ – to be present more regularly. By the 1700s the Society had gained academic stature but was bedevilled by internal politics. The main problem was that was that only one-third of the Fellows were scientific men (the term ‘scientist’ only came into use in the nineteenth century) and the influence of this minority was diluted by the dominance of dilettantes who had paid for their Fellowships. The Society was in danger of becoming yet another London ‘gentleman’s club’ rather than a specialist body of knowledgeable equals.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, with very few exceptions, scientific pursuits were restricted to the aristocratic and leisured classes.  A new category of professional scientist emerged after the Industrial Revolution and with developments in technology. This came at a time when the Royal Society of London suffered severely from managerial inertia and a lacklustre public image. For more than 41years (1778-1819), the President of the Royal Society was Sir Joseph Banks. He was born to a wealthy, landowning family and became a renowned botanist, scholar and disseminator of science, but he was a poor administrator and many Fellows of the Society thought that his presidency had gone on for far too long and that his lack of leadership was detrimental. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of its Causes (1830), Charles Babbage described the misgovernment of the Royal Society and complained that administration by an apathetic ‘coterie’, the indiscriminate admission of every candidate and the loss of scholarly focus jeopardised the prestige, efficacy and, indeed, the very survival, of the Society. Sir David Brewster shared these views, complaining that ‘It is a disgrace to men of science, and to the Royal Society, the natural guardian of English science, that they have not combined in a vigorous attempt to raise public feeling on the subject [of the decline of science in England].’

In fact, the scientists who were coming into their own in this period were of a fresh generation of intellectuals. Political reform and increasing democracy together with industrialisation gave voice scholarship and ways of thinking that were very different from those of the founders of the Royal Society in the 1660s who had come from the landed aristocracy. New disciplines became prominent and scientists became specialists and entrepreneurs. A number of other illustrious scientific societies were established in Britain to meet their needs, among them the Linnaean Society (1788), the Royal Institution (1800), the Geological Society (1807), the Astronomical Society (1820) and the Geographical Society (1830, ‘Royal’ after 1859). All these societies had a growing and committed membership and they began to compete with the Royal Society for positions of premiership. The threats came particularly from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (created in 1831) and from the Astronomical Society which was given the status of ‘Royal’.

With the departure of Banks the Royal Society was reorganised, its Statutes were revised (1847) and the decision was taken to withhold Fellowship from all but prominent scientists of the highest calibre, despite the loss of income and smaller membership that this would entail. Needless to say, the internal power struggle took some time to come to a conclusion and many Fellows were firmly against the proposed changes. But once things had settled down, the Royal Society met the challenge of the newcomers by welcoming them into the scientific arena rather than resisting them or regarding them as unwanted competitors.  The Society played to its strengths as the foremost scientific community. While the British Association for the Advancement of Science adopted an evangelical role and worked under government sponsorship and support (as did the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1905), the Royal Society emphasised its independence, its dedication to the pursuit of knowledge through maintaining standards of excellence in its Fellowship, its strong interdisciplinary nature and its individual character as an ‘Invisible College’ and national academy. This is what the Royal Society of South Africa stands for today.

Returning to the connections between South Africa and London, the Royal Society of London had to cope with a changing society in the 19th century.  Technological innovations  were transforming agriculture and industry, the power of the landed gentry was waning and specific social groups, particularly those in the provincial cities which were most affected by industry, began to employ ‘knowledge’ and learning as a means of becoming upwardly mobile. Science and technology spawned a growing, self-aware middle class and the emergence of a recognisably modern capitalist order. A large number of learned societies began at this time that attracted extremely clever people who did not have the benefit of noble patronage or aristocratic lineage. Science was widening its appeal and learned societies sprang up in Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle among other regional cities. It was this development which was to influence the evolution of the Royal Society of South Africa more than the blueprint of the Royal Society of London.  John Fairbairn, a member of the dynamic Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle who had immigrated to the Cape Colony, initiated the first southern African intellectual society in Cape Town in 1824. Fairbairn called it the South African Literary Society and modelled it on the ‘upwardly mobile, utilitarian and dissenting traditions of the Newcastle Lit. and Phil. It was concerned more with improving the political and cultural standing of its members, and changing the balance of social relations, than it was devoted to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.’[i] Nonetheless, Fairbairn outlined what he wanted the society to achieve in terms of following the example of the Royal Society of London and the Asiatic Society in Calcutta.[ii]

The short list of references below is provided for readers who are interested in more details and in following the various transformations of South African Literary Society until the formal establishment of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908.

BREGMAN, L D., ‘“Snug little coteries”: A history of scientific societies in early nineteenth century Cape Town, 1824-1835’. Unpubl. PhD Thesis, University College London, 2003.

CARRUTHERS, J. ‘Scientists in society: A history of the Royal Society of South Africa’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(1), 2008, pp.-30.

CRAWFORD, ‘The South African Literary and Scientific Institution, 1832-1857’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 22, 1934, pp.13–320.

DUBOW, S. 2006. A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820-2000. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[i] Quote from Dubow, Commonwealth of Knowledge, 34.

[ii] Crawford, ‘The South African Literary and Scientific Institution, 1832-1857’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 22:315.


[1] Quote from Dubow, Commonwealth of Knowledge, 34.

[1] Crawford, ‘The South African Literary and Scientific Institution, 1832-1857’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 22:315.