The Spirit of Inquiry

Written by Susannah Gibson


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.

In it, Susannah Gibson reflects on the shaping of modern science, as well as a changing Cambridge University, against the backdrop of profound social and intellectual transformation, from early Victorian times, through the world wars, to the present. The book also offers an insightful background to current debates about the role of science in society.

Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn't always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological field trip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology - conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island's rocks - they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society "to keep alive the spirit of inquiry".

Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin's scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg - a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber - a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society's foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a "death-like stagnation" (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity is undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives

Table of Contents

1: The fenland philosophers
2: The house on All Saints' Passage
3: Letters from the south
4: "The hidden worlds"
5: The misdeeds of Mr Crouch
6: A workbench of one's own
7: The laboratory in the library
8: "May it never be of any use to anybody"
9: Following the footsteps
Further reading

About the Author

Susannah Gibson, Affiliated scholar, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge

Dr Susannah Gibson is an Affiliated Scholar of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She holds a PhD from Cambridge on the history of the life sciences of the eighteenth century, a master's degree in the history of nineteenth-century science, and a bachelor's degree in experimental physics. She is the author of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order (OUP, 2015), which was well reviewed in The Telegraph, The TLS, and The Independent, amongst other publications. She was formerly Manager of the Cambridge Literary Festival, and remains interested in both introducing new audiences to the history of science, and in bridging the gap between academic and popular writing.


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.


Join the Cambridge Philosophical Society

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

Join today

Upcoming Events

Show All



Professor Lisa Hall

Professor Lisa Hall, CBE

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

View Details



Professor Holger Babinsky

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

Larmor Lecture

View Details