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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Society Bye-Laws adopted at the General Meeting on 2 July 2018 are available to view in full Bye Laws .
Cambridge Philosophical Society Founded
New Botanic Garden opens
New Fitzwilliam Museum building opens
Natural Sciences Tripos starts
Cavendish laboratory opens
Balfour laboratory for women opens
Women first eligible as honorary fellows of CPS
Women eligible to be full fellows of CPS
Women first awarded degrees
Philosophical Library becomes Scientific Periodicals Library
Henslow Fellowship scheme launched
From Darwin’s paper on evolution to the development of stem cell research, publications from the Society continue to shape the scientific landscape.
Mathematical Proceedings is one of the few high-quality journals publishing original research papers that cover the whole range of pure and applied mathematics, theoretical physics and statistics.
Biological Reviews covers the entire range of the biological sciences, presenting several review articles per issue. Although scholarly and with extensive bibliographies, the articles are aimed at non-specialist biologists as well as researchers in the field.
The Spirit of Inquiry celebrates the 200th anniversary of the remarkable Cambridge Philosophical Society and brings to life the many remarkable episodes and illustrious figures associated with the Society, including Adam Sedgwick, Mary Somerville, Charles Darwin, and Lawrence Bragg.
Become a Fellow of the Society and enjoy the benefits that membership brings. Membership costs £20 per year.
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