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Cambridge Philosophical Society

“...to keep alive the spirit of inquiry...”

A brief history of Cambridge’s oldest scientific society

In 1819, the Cambridge Philosophical Society was founded by Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow. Though 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 had instituted fortnightly meetings, had set up Cambridge’s most extensive scientific library, had collected and curated Cambridge’s first museum of natural history, and had begun publishing Cambridge’s first scientific periodical. Emboldened by this early success, the Society began to push for reform of scientific teaching and research in the university and colleges: fellows of the Society were involved in the creation of science degrees, the building of university and college laboratories, and campaigning for increased funding and career opportunities for scientists.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Society played a key role in raising the profile of the sciences in Cambridge. Many facilities grew out of different elements of the Society: the Society’s library became the university’s Central Science Library; its museum became the core of the university’s Zoology Museum.

Today, the Society funds post-doctoral Henslow Fellowships and supports doctoral students through a grant programme, and still 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.

 

Dr Susannah Gibson

Affiliated Scholar, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

Professor Jim Woodhouse

Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

Vice-President Cambridge Philosophical Society

 

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