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The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society is a learned society for science that was founded in 1660 and is considered by most to be the oldest such society still in existence. Although a charitable body, it serves as the Academy of Sciences of the United Kingdommarker (in which role it receives funding from HM Government). Fellowship, granted for life, is awarded to scientists after their election by existing fellows, and is considered a great honour. Fellows must be citizens or residents of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations or the Republic of Irelandmarker, while the smaller number of Foreign Members are drawn from other countries. The Royal Society is a member organisation of the Science Council and the International Council for Science.


The Royal Society was founded in 1660, only a few months after the Restoration of King Charles II, by members of one or two either secretive or informal societies. The Royal Society enjoyed the confidence and official support of the restored monarchy, in part because the establishment wanted better control over the "new science". The "New" or "Experimental" form of philosophy had been generally ill-regarded by the Aristotelian academies, but had been promoted by Sir Francis Bacon in his book The New Atlantis.

Robert Boyle refers to the "Invisible College" as early as 1646. A founding meeting was held at the premises of Gresham Collegemarker in Bishopsgatemarker on 28 November 1660, immediately after a lecture by Sir Christopher Wren, who was at that time Gresham Professor of Astronomy. The founding group of 12 natural philosophers, including Robert Boyle, John Wilkins and Wren, decided to form a 'Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning', which would meet weekly to view experiments and discuss science. At a second meeting a week later, Sir Robert Moray, an influential Freemason who had helped organise the public emergence of the group, reported that the King approved of the meetings.

A formal Royal Charter of incorporation passed the Great Seal on 15 July 1662, creating "The Royal Society of London", with Lord Brouncker as the first President, and Robert Hooke was appointed as Curator of Experiments in November 1662. A second Royal Charter was sealed on 23 April 1663, naming the King as Founder and changing the name to "The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge". Her Majesty The Queen is the current patron, and the reigning monarch has always been the patron of the Royal Society since its foundation.

Following the Great Fire of Londonmarker the society moved to Arundel Housemarker, the home of Duke of Norfolk. It moved again in 1710 to Crane Court in the Strandmarker, and a second time in 1780 to Somerset Housemarker. In 1857, the Society moved to Burlington House in Piccadilly where it remained until its move to the present location in Carlton House Terracemarker in 1967.

The Latin motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in verba, translates as "On the words of no one", or "take nobody's word for it". The full quotation from Horace is Nullius addictus judicare in verba magistri which means "Not compelled to swear to any master's words". This is interpreted by the Society as "an expression of the determination of the Fellows to withstand the domination of authority (such as in Scholasticism) and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment". At its foundation, the philosophical basis of the Royal Society differed from previous philosophies such as Scholasticism, which established scientific truth based on deductive logic, concordance with divine providence and the citation of such ancient authorities as Aristotle. In fact, it represented the final triumph of the vision of the thirteenth-century friar Roger Bacon, who had fought scholastic authorities in an attempt to establish such a repository of learning.

Historical philosophy and significance

The Royal Society imagined a network across the globe as a public enterprise, an "Empire of Learning", and strove to remove language barriers within the sciences. The Royal Society was dedicated to the free flow of information and encouraged communication. Boyle, in particular, began the practice of reporting his experiments in great detail so that others could replicate them, unlike previous alchemists. Sir Isaac Newton was a practising alchemist and his assistant, J. T. Desaguliers, a demonstrator for the Royal Society, was a prominent Freemason and Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England. During the eighteenth century, masonic lodges in Francemarker became conduits for circulating scientific texts which could not be made available publicly (see John Toland). While the proceedings of the Royal Society reported for instance Chinese alchemists' immortality potions as fact, the Royal Society did actually put the superstitions then current to rigorous testing, for instance placing a spider on a table and sprinkling a circle of salt around it; on the theory that it could not walk across the salt. The spider promptly left the circle, thus disproving that myth.


In 1820 Humphry Davy became president and marked a shift in membership towards practising scientists, rather than gentlemen and amateurs. The Industrial Revolution and the needs of business had alerted society to the demand for a professional body for leading scientists. However, the Society's royal charter guaranteed the Fellows an unfettered right to elect to Fellowship whoever they chose and regulation of the number of new members and their scientific qualifications became a pressing concern. In 1823, a committee was established to review the statutes of the Society but it was only in 1827 that the question of membership was considered. James South succeeded in establishing a committee to "consider the best means of limiting the members admitted to the Royal Society, as well as to make such Suggestions on that subject as may seem to them conducive to the Welfare of the Society." However, the committee, chaired by William Hyde Wollaston and comprising South, Davies Gilbert, John Herschel, Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, Francis Beaufort and Henry Kater, had little impact when it reported.

A new crisis was precipitated when Davy resigned as president in July 1827. Gilbert canvassed Sir Robert Peel as a new president. Peel had been an important political intermediary in establishing the Royal Medals, but many were appalled at the prospect of a political, rather than scientific, president. In the face of a deadlock, Davies took the presidency for the remainder of the year but was then succeeded by two non-scientists; first the Duke of Sussex, and then the Marquess of Northampton.

In 1846, the Society established a Charters Committee "with a view to obtaining a supplementary Charter from the Crown", and a particular remit to consider the membership issue. When he was elected to the Council that year, William Robert Grove was co-opted to the committee, his experience in both science and law making him particularly qualified. The committee recommended:
  • Election of Fellows on one day only each year. There had previously been four elections which made the thorough appraisal of candidates difficult;
  • Number of new Fellows limited to fifteen per year; and
  • Thorough consideration of scientific qualifications of candidates.

However, the Society sought the opinion of the Attorney General and Solicitor General who held that it would not be lawful to limit the membership under the current charter. It was Grove who resolved the deadlock by proposing that a limited intake of fifteen be proposed by the council to the Fellows for election, effectively limiting the new membership. Grove facilitated the adoption of the new rules against opposition from the amateurs and from some professionals who regretted any weakening of links with the political establishment. During the 1870s, membership of the Society fell to about 500.

Current activities and significance

  • Funding scientific research. This is the largest area of expenditure for the Society, costing around £30 m each year. The flagship scheme is the University Research Fellowship which funds early careers scientists, with approximately 300 in post at any time. Other schemes include the Royal Society Research Professorships to be awarded to world leading scientists based in the UK such as Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys FRS and international schemes to encourage foreign collaboration, such as the Newton International Fellowships. The majority of grants are paid from the Society's Parliamentary Grant in Aid although some are funded by private donors such as BP and the Wolfson Foundation.
  • Publishing (see later).
  • Providing science policy advice to HM Government, and also science and mathematics education policy advice. High profile reports have recently been produced on geoengineering and sustainable agriculture.
  • Promoting public interest in and understanding of science. Activities include public lectures and the annual Summer Science Exhibition.
  • An international program to develop and maintain links with scientific bodies, academies and associations overseas.


In September 2008 the Royal Society's Director of Education Michael Reiss suggested that, rather than dismissing creationism without discussing it, teachers should take the time to explain why creationism had no scientific basis. His views were presented in some media reports as lending support to teaching creationism as a valid scientific theory, but both he and the Royal Society later stated that this was a misrepresentation. Reiss resigned within days.


The Royal Society started publishing in 1665, very soon after it was founded, and currently publishes seven, high quality peer-reviewed journals covering: biological and physical sciences; mathematics; history and philosophy of science; and cross-disciplinary research at the interface between the physical and life sciences. The Society's first Secretary, Henry Oldenburg is credited with inventing the process now known as peer review whereby scientific articles were sent to other academics for critical appraisal and fact-checking before publication. He also launched the Society's first journal, now the world's longest running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The Society's serial publications are;


The Society is governed by its Council, which is chaired by its President, according to a set of Statutes and Standing Orders. The members of Council, the President and the other Officers are elected from its Fellowship.


As with many learned societies, the Society's governance structure is based on its Fellowship. Fellows must be citizens or ordinarily resident of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Irelandmarker, otherwise they may be elected as a Foreign Member. Up to 44 new Fellows are elected each year by ballot of the existing Fellows of the Society based on a shortlist drawn up by Council and its 10 Sectional Committees. The Society's statutes state that candidates for election must have made "a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science". The Society's website states that "the main criterion for election as a Fellow is scientific excellence."

There are two additional categories: Royal Fellow of the Royal Society for a member of the Royal family to be admitted, and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society, for "quite exceptional candidates who have given distinguished service to the cause of science and its applications, or who have brought great benefits to science". A maximum of forty-four Fellows, six Foreign Members and one Honorary Fellow may be elected each year.

Foreign Member of the Royal Society is an honorary position within the Royal Society. It is a position at the same rank as a Fellow of the Royal Society to which scientists from outside the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland may be elected.

Fellows are entitled to use the post-nominal letters FRS. Foreign Members may use the post-nominal letters ForMemRS.

Prior to the creation of the position of Honorary Fellow in 2000, people distinguished in other walks of life would sometimes be elected as Fellows; examples of this are the British Prime Ministers The Duke of Wellington, Viscount Melbourne, The Earl of Aberdeen, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher.

Council and officers

The Fellowship elects twenty-one members of Council, the governing body and trustees of the society. The chair of the council is the President of the Royal Society, currently Lord Rees of Ludlow, who is entitled to use the post-nominal letters PRS. There are four other titled posts, variously referred to as Vice-Presidents, Secretaries and Officers: the Treasurer, the Foreign Secretary, the Physical Secretary and the Biological Secretary. The current holders of these posts are respectively Sir Peter Williams, Professor Lorna Casselton, Professor Sir Martin Taylor, and Professor Dame Jean Thomas.

Permanent staff

The Society's 15 Sections are administered by the permanent staff, led by the Executive Secretary, Stephen Cox CVO. The Executive Secretary is supported by the Senior Managers of the Society, including:
  • Mr Ian Cooper, Director of Finance and Operations
  • Dr James Wilsdon, Director of Science Policy
  • Dr Peter Cotgreave, Director of Communications

Society honours

The Society bestows twelve medals, eight awards (prizes) and seven prize lectureships variously annually, biennially or triennially, according to the terms of reference for each award. The Society also runs the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books.

Medals and prize lectures are awarded to scientists in honour of the excellence of their science. Only Fellows can make nominations, which are assessed by committees of Fellows which recommends to the Society's Council who should receive them. Nominees need not be Fellows. Medalists and Prize Lecturers receive a struck medal, a scroll, and an honorarium from the Society's private funds. Prize lecturers are required to give a public lecture.

The Prizes often have the word Award in their title, and are open to nomination from all. They have a variety of assessment criteria and selection process. Some, such as the Michael Faraday Prize, require the recipient to give a public lecture, whereas others, such as the Kohn Award, provide funds for the recipient to undertake a project.

A full list of recipients is on the Awards section of the Society's website.



  • Buchanan Medal for achievements in medicine
  • Copley Medal for work in any field of science
  • Darwin Medal for work in the broad area of biology in which Charles Darwin worked
  • Davy Medal for work in any branch of chemistry
  • Gabor Medal for work in biology, especially in genetic engineering and molecular biology
  • Hughes Medal for work in the physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism
  • Leverhulme Medal for work in pure or applied chemistry or engineering
  • Royal Medal for the two most important contributions to the advancement of Natural Knowledge
  • Rumford Medal for work in the fields of heat or light
  • Sylvester Medal for the encouragement of mathematical research

Prize lectures

Selected bibliography


  • 1640s — informal meetings
  • 28 November 1660 — Royal Society founded at Gresham Collegemarker
  • 1661 — name first appears in print, and library presented with its first book
  • 1662 — first Royal Charter gives permission to publish
  • 1663 — second Royal Charter
  • 1665 — first issue of Philosophical Transactions
  • 1666 — Fire of Londonmarker causes move to Arundel Housemarker until 1673, then returns to Gresham College
  • 1669 — third Royal Charter; original proposal would have made Chelsea College the permanent home of the Society, but the site became Chelsea Hospitalmarker instead
  • 1710 — acquires its own home in Crane Court
  • 1780 — moves to premises at Somerset House provided by the Crown
  • 1847 — changed election criteria so that future Fellows would be elected solely on the merit of their scientific work
  • 1850 — Parliamentary Grant-in-aid commences, of £1,000, to assist scientists in their research and to buy equipment.
  • 1857 — moved to Burlington Housemarker in Piccadillymarker
  • 1967 — moved to present location on Carlton House Terracemarker

See also

In fiction

The early Royal Society is satirised in Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel Gulliver's Travels when the eponymous protagonist visits the flying island of Laputa.

Professor Henry Higgins is revealed to be a member of the Society in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.

The early days of the Royal Society also form the backdrop for the events of Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle of novels—Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

The founding members of the Royal Society (such as Robert Boyle) are used as secondary characters in the historical mystery novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, published in 1997 by English writer and art historian Iain Pears. Purposes of the organisation and membership are discussed in parts of the novel, and a days proceedings forms an integral part of the story.

Both Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey (main characters in Patrick O'Brian's series of popular novels) are members of the Royal Society.

In Terry Pratchett's 2008 novel Nation, Daphne and her father attend Royal Society lectures, and Mau requests that his nation become a member of the Society.

In Chapter 30 of Dan Brown's 2009 novel The Lost Symbol, Einstein, Hawking, Bohr and even Benjamin Franklin are mentioned as fellow/members.



  1. The German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina ( Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina) lays claim to being the oldest continuously existing learned society, because the contemporary organization traces its roots back to the 1652 creation of what was called the Academia Naturae Curiosorum. However, the Royal Society was chartered by the crown in 1660, and the Leopoldina was not officially chartered until 1687.]
  2. Curry, Patrick (1989) Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England Polity Press, Cambridge, England, p.57 and following, ISBN 0-7456-0604-0
  3. " Presidents of the Royal Society" The Royal Society. Retrieved on 2009-11-27.
  4. Press Release: "No change in Society's position on creationism," Royal Society. September 12, 2008.
  5. "Call for Creationism in Science," BBC. September 13, 2008.
  6. "Creationism' biologist quits job," BBC. September 16, 2008.

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