The Royal Soc and British Ass

Next week I will be speaking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham in a session celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. I will be talking about the Society in the 19th century, which gives me the chance to compare and contrast its role with that of the many other scientific institutions that first saw light in the 1800s. These include the Geological Society (1807), Royal Astronomical Society (1820), Royal Geographical Society (1830), many provincial societies and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) – organisers of the annual science festival and recently renamed as the British Science Association. The tradition of the annual meeting of the BAAS (or BSA), usually held in September, goes back to the very beginning. I have never been before, but I am interested to see how recognisable today’s festival would be to those who enjoyed the original “Philosophers’ Picnic”.  While the Royal Society was firmly associated with elite science and metropolitan society, the BAAS was its annual provincial extravaganzas. Towns and cities like Birmingham, York, Dublin and Liverpool were overtaken for a week by men of science, BAAS Members and Associates, to the excitement or disgust of the local population. Its presence was highly visible and flamboyant, with soirées, conversazione, tea parties, exhibits, popular lectures and excursions as important a part of the programme as the Sectional and Committee meetings, where specialist papers were read and decisions made about grants for research. 

The origins of the BAAS are complex. Its initial inspiration was undoubtedly the aim of creating an alternative route to government influence and funding than that of the Royal Society, which controlled largely by a group brought together under the presidency of Joseph Banks and linked to the Admiralty (David Philip Miller, in his thesis and article on the Royal Society in the early 19th century, refers to the ‘Banksian Learned Empire’ and the ‘Royal Society-Admiralty Coterie’). This was the agenda expounded in Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England in 1830 – although he did not see the BAAS as the answer to the problems with the RS – and various articles and letters by David Brewster, who can be considered the Association’s founding father. However, it was the other aim of bringing men of science together in one place, across disciplines and across the nation, that caught the mood of the moment. Ultimately, it was the importance of reaching and making use of provincial support for science that really made the concept catch fire. 

The BAAS, although it did get involved in lobbying government and distributing grants, was important above all for its theatrical display of science and men of science, indeed for creating a collective idea of ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ in a time of increasing disciplinary specialisation (William Whewell came up with the term ‘scientist’ in 1833 – and first published it in 1834 – precisely in reaction to the search by members of the BAAS for a collective term). As with every theatrical spectacular, the existence of an audience was crucial: one that was seen to appreciate, demarcate and contrast with the players before them. In this, the BAAS was distinct from the London-based societies. After the first few years, attendance was nearly always over 1000, and sometimes over 3000 and, while individuals with national and international reputations in science were among these, it still left plenty whose only role was spectator. 

"Things One Would Have Rather Left Unsaid", Punch 91 (2 Oct 1886), 116

Women, I have argued in the article listed below, were particularly important in the process of demarcating the BAAS men of science from their audience. In the 1830s-80s they typically made up 20-30% of the audience and only a vanishingly small number of them were full members of the Association or spoke at sectional meetings. There presence was, especially in an era where men wore black and women wore crinolines or bustles, highly visible and, for commentators, always worth referring to. They, above all, made science at the BAAS appear to be something important, polite, interesting or fashionable, even if their lack of knowledge was the butt of jokes. In the Punch cartoon above, the German professor says to the attractive, fashionable young lady “Ach! Cracious Laty, I hope zat my long Cherman Lecture on ze Boetical aspects of ze Bliocene Beriod did not bore you fery much zis afternoon?”. She replies, “Oh, not at all, Professor Wohlgemuth. I don’t understand German, you know”. Nevertheless, her desire to be at the meeting, to attend the lecture, and to talk to the famous man of science show that he is accepted as the expert, and that science is something to be supported, even if passively and without much comprehension. Perhaps all the better – uncomprehending support, so long as loyal, unquestioning and subservient, may be the most convenient sort. 

The Royal Society had a different function, which is hardly surprising since its active fellows crossed over largely with the leading members of the BAAS and the other metropolitan learned societies. It was late in the century before it, too, began to see the advantage of staging events that would include non-members: only in 1876 were ladies, ipso facto non-fellows, invited to an annual event. The RS remained, however, the bastion of elite and – eventually – what we would now term professional science. It was the BAAS that allowed that elite to address and utilise the otherwise excluded provincial or female scientists and lay audiences of the nation. 

Further reading

Rebekah Higgitt and Charles W.J. Withers, ‘Science and sociability: women as audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831-1901’, Isis 99 (2008), 1-27 [ pdf here

Charles W.J. Withers, Geography and Science in Britain, 1831-1939: a Study of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2010) [link

Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, Gentlemen of Science: the Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Oxford University Press, 1981) [link

Roy Macleod, The Parliament of Science: the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1831-1981 (Science Reviews, 1981) [link]


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