A brief history of Cambridge’s oldest scientific society

Creating a space for scientific thinking

In 1819, the Cambridge Philosophical Society was founded by John Stevens HenslowAdam Sedgwick and Edward Clarke, 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.

Discovery exhibition

An exhibition to mark 200 years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society was held at the University Library in 2019, exploring how the Society has underpinned and supported scientific discovery throughout its history.  The exhibition brochure and some short videos can be found here.

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

Discover our Journals & Books

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

Membership

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Become a Fellow of the Society and enjoy the benefits that membership brings. Membership costs £20 per year.

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02

The quest for the first stars and first black holes with the James Webb Space Telescope

Professor Roberto Maiolino

  • 18:00 - 19:00 Bristol-Myers Squibb Lecture Theatre

Finding and understanding the nature of the first stars at cosmic dawn is one of the most important and most ambitious goals for modern astrophysics. The first populations of stars produced the first chemical elements heavier than helium and formed the first, small protogalaxies, which then evolved, across the cosmic epoch, into the large and mature galaxies, such as the Milky Way and those in our local neighbour. Equally important and equally challenging is the search, in the early Universe, of the seeds of the first population of black holes, which later evolved in the supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies, with masses even exceeding a billion times the mass of the Sun. When matter accretes on such supermassive black holes it can become so luminous to vastly outshine the light emitted by all stars in their host galaxy.

Since its launch, about two years ago, the James Webb Space Telescope has been revolutionizing this area of research. Its sensitivity in detecting infrared light from the remotest parts of the Universe is orders of magnitude higher than any previous observatory, an historical leap in astronomy and, more broadly, in science. I will presents some of the first, extraordinary discoveries from the Webb telescope, which have resulted in several unexpected findings. I will also discuss the new puzzles and areas of investigation that have been opened by Webb’s observations, how these challenge theoretical models, and the prospects of further progress in the coming years.

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03

Every breath you take and every move you make - understanding cellular oxygen sensing mechanisms

Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe FRS

  • 18:00 - 19:00 Bristol-Myers Squibb Lecture Theatre

The maintenance of oxygen homeostasis is a key physiological challenge, inadequate oxygen (hypoxia) being a major component of most human diseases. The lecture will trace insights into human oxygen homeostasis from the founding work of William Harvey on the circulation of the blood to the molecular elucidation of a system of oxygen sensing that functions to measure oxygen levels in cells and control adaptive responses to hypoxia. The lecture will outline how the oxygen sensitive signal is generated by a set of ‘oxygen splitting’ enzymes that modify a transcription factor (HIF) to signal for its degradation (and hence inactivation).  It will attempt to illustrate and rationalise the unexpected in biological discovery and discuss the interface of discovery science with the development of medical therapeutics.

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