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A brief history of Cambridge's oldest scientific society

“…to keep alive the spirit of inquiry…”

In 1819, the Cambridge Philosophical Society was founded by Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow as a place where university graduates could meet to discuss current scientific ideas and present new research. 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 the practice of 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 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 and played a key role in raising the profile of the sciences in Cambridge. The Society also acted as a seedbed for university science with many facilities growing out of different elements of the Society: the Society’s library became the university’s Central Science Library; its museum became 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 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

 

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