The Royal Society

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1665- )

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
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  Central to the whole manifesto of Wilkins’ Oxford Club, then of the Royal Society after 1660, was the need to broadcast scientific discovery, useful inventions, and ideas, far and wide. Their declared enemies were the closet scholars of “the schools” who believed true knowledge was only for a learned elite, and could only be got at through classical texts or deductive logic. Men who dealt only in “words” and not in “things”, and whose intellectual systems were often circular, obscure and of no benefit to the wider community.

The Royal Society, by contrast, dealt in “things”: objects, experiments, public testing, and what we now call research. Only in this way could we begin to understand how the natural world is put together, and use these fruits for what Sir Francis Bacon styled “the relief of man’s estate”, such as improving agriculture, medicine, and navigation.

This approach would also work best when independently-minded friends came together to share ideas and results, in a free Fellowship in fact, rather than in a hierarchically-controlled academy under an absolute ruler. A bit like the free men within an Oxbridge College, rather than in a Royal Court, and why the Royal Society still calls its members “Fellows”. And while King Charles II became Patron of the Society, his Charters granted in 1662 and 1663 gave them a true independence to do pretty much as they pleased intellectually, with his Majesty in no way interfering. A crucial precedent for the Royal and subsequent British learned societies, who were nonetheless obliged to pay their own way, unlike groups of scientists in France, or Florence, where the Monarch and his Ministers often interfered directly. Indeed, as Wadham's early F.R.S. Bishop Thomas Sprat declared, they were "Gentlemen, free, and unconfin'd". [T.Sprat, History of the Royal Society (1667), p.67]

Right from the start, however, the Royal Society saw science as a truly international pursuit, where a discovery made by an Italian would be “refereed” and confirmed by a Dutchman or a Scotsman, invited foreign scientists of distinction to become overseas members of the Fellowship, and very quickly there were Italian, French, Dutch, Polish and German Fellows of the Royal Society, many of whom admired the intellectual freedom enjoyed by their English brethren.

And this is where the Philosophical Transactions assumed such an importance after its first number, in March 1665. For it became a pioneering work in the history of journalism, and today, 345 years later, is still published - a journalistic record, surely?

‘Phil. Trans’, as it came to be known, reflected this open, experimental approach. Fellows at home and abroad could submit their research for publication. Others may write in confirming, challenging, or amplifying their results. Letters sent to the Editor, perhaps from overseas, in Latin or French, were published, often recounting foreign researches. Book reviews soon started to appear, and very soon controversies began to rage: such as between Robert Hooke in London and Adrien Auzout F.R.S. in Paris, about practicable telescope designs and life on the moon. Packets containing recent numbers of Phil Trans were regularly sent to Paris, Leiden, Boston, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, and when the often Princely Societies of Europe began to publish their on-going work in serialized magazines, such as the Proceedings of the Academy in Paris, or later, the Acta Beroliniensis of Berlin, copies were sent to London. Cotton Mather of Boston, Mass., became one of the first of a distinguished line of American Fellows of the Royal Society, and Harvard College, like Oxford and Cambridge and the Scottish universities, acquired dons who seriously pursued science.

Philosophical transactions was to play an almost inestimable role in creating the context, openness, and internationalisation of modern science. Yet one of its most bizarre articles, from 1727, told how a merchant ship Captain, visiting Charlestown, South Carolina, decided to do some experiments to test the toxicity of local rattle-snakes: a species of creature which fascinated European naturalists. He did this by getting his men to pick up dogs of all sizes from around Charlestown. He would make the captive snake bite the dog, and time how long it took a dog, of whatever size, to die - or to survive if the snake had partly exhausted itself by a previous bite.

Captain Hall, the experimenter, got into trouble at one stage when a lady of Charlestown, whose dog had been stolen and which had died after its serpentine encounter, quite rightly accused him of cruelty. Yet one paragraph in Captain Hall's paper gave it a curious Wadham association, for "on the 10th of June 1723, Mr Thomas Cooper, a gentleman who practices physick [medicine] in Charlestown, and who was late of Wadham College, Oxon, a very ingenious man, sent to me to let me know, he had got a live rattle-snake, which had been taken not above 4 days, was about three feet and a half long, and that he design'd to try whether he could save some of the dogs after the snake should bite them" [using purgative drugs].

From "An account of some experiments on the effects of the poison of the rattle-snake, by Captain Hall. Communicated by Sir Hans Sloane, Bar[onet]. Med[icus] Reg[ius] [Physician to the King - George I]", Phil. Trans, 35, 1727-28 (pp.309-315; quotation from p.314).
Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Allan Chapman