A brief history of Cambridge’s oldest scientific society

Creating a space for scientific thinking

In 1819, the Cambridge Philosophical Society was founded by Edward Clarke, Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow as a place where university graduates could meet to discuss current scientific ideas and present new research. Although Regency Cambridge had several professors in scientific subjects, few undergraduates attended their lectures, the university did not offer science degrees, and there was little encouragement or funding for original research. Sedgwick and Henslow envisaged a Society, independent of the university, which would facilitate cooperation between scientific thinkers, create a forum for the public communication of results, inspire investigations in new fields, form links to other scientific bodies around the country, and preserve the research of the Society’s fellows in print.

Sowing the seeds of today’s scientific community

Within a year of its foundation, the Society were holding fortnightly meetings, had set up the most extensive scientific library in Cambridge, had collected and curated Cambridge’s first museum of natural history, and had begun publishing Cambridge’s first scientific periodical. Emboldened by the early success of the new Society, its fellows began to push for reform of scientific teaching and research in the university and colleges. In the Victorian period, fellows of the Society were involved in the creation of science degrees, the building of university and college laboratories, and in numerous campaigns for increased funding and job opportunities for young researchers.

The spread of scientific resources for the benefit of all

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Society continued to provide a public forum for Cambridge science, playing a key role in raising the profile of science in Cambridge beyond the university. The Society also acted as a seedbed for scientific diversity with many facilities growing out of different elements of the Society: the Society’s library became the university’s Central Science Library; its museum formed the core of the university’s Zoology Museum; and the Society’s journals were considered the natural place to publish research articles produced by the university’s Cavendish Laboratory.

A champion for the scientists of the future

Today, the Society continues to support the sciences in Cambridge - its flagship Henslow Fellowships have been awarded annually since 2010. These fellowships fund three years of postdoctoral research across a wide range of disciplines including earth sciences, chemistry, biochemistry, zoology, engineering, physics and medicine. The Society also supports doctoral students through its programme of travel grants and final-year funding. Remaining true to its roots, the Society also provides important spaces for scientific communication: its fortnightly meetings have taken place uninterrupted since 1819; and it continues to publish two world-class journals – Biological Reviews and Mathematical Proceedings.

Constitution of the Society

The Cambridge Philosophical Society was established 15 November 1819, for the purpose of promoting scientific inquiry, and of facilitating the communication of facts connected with the advancement of Philosophy and Natural History; and became a Body Corporate by virtue of a CHARTER granted by His late Majesty King William the Fourth. This Charter, of which the following this PDF is a copy, bearing the date the 6th day of August 1832, was formally accepted by the Society at a General Meeting held after due notice for that express purpose, 6 November 1832. 

Bye-Laws of the Society

The Society Bye-Laws adopted at the General Meeting on 2 July 2018 are available to view in full  Bye Laws .

Society Timeline

  1. 1819

    Cambridge Philosophical Society Founded

  2. 1846

    New Botanic Garden opens

  3. 1848

    New Fitzwilliam Museum building opens

  4. 1851

    Natural Sciences Tripos starts

  5. 1874

    Cavendish laboratory opens

  6. 1884

    Balfour laboratory for women opens

  7. 1914

    Women first eligible as honorary fellows of CPS

    Marie Curie
    Marie Curie
  8. 1929

    Women eligible to be full fellows of CPS

  9. 1948

    Women first awarded degrees

  10. 1967

    Philosophical Library becomes Scientific Periodicals Library

  11. 2010

    Henslow Fellowship scheme launched

  12. 2019

    Society’s Bicentenary

    Blue Plaque, Saints Passage, Cambridge
    Blue Plaque, Saints Passage, Cambridge

Publications

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From Darwin’s paper on evolution to the development of stem cell research, publications from the Society continue to shape the scientific landscape.

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