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Cambridge University Science Magazine

Two hundred years ago, there were no scientists in Cambridge. In fact, it would be over a decade before the word ‘scientist’ was even coined. Though it seems inconceivable now, as the University of Cambridge is one of the world’s leading scientific institutions and admits around six hundred new Natural Sciences undergraduates every year, it was not long ago that most Cambridge academics saw science as little more than an amateur hobby. To understand the transformation in status that science went through, we must cast our eyes back to the origins of an often-overlooked society that played an instrumental role in its development – the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

If it seems odd that the first scientific society in Cambridge would have ‘philosophical’ in its name, consider this: Before the modern concept of science was developed in the nineteenth century, the study of nature and the physical world was known as natural philosophy. This tradition, reaching all the way back to Aristotle, should not be thought of simply as a precursor to modern science or an offshoot of philosophy. It was its own distinct discipline, initially without any rigorous mathematical grounding or formal experimental methodology, but nonetheless concerned with far-reaching questions about patterns in the processes of nature.

Although natural philosophy was respected, it enjoyed nothing like the special status that science does today. There was no professional community of university-trained natural philosophers, conducting their work in research institutions and publishing peer-reviewed papers which built up the body of accepted ‘facts’. For the most part, natural philosophy was carried out by individual gentlemen, who were self-funded and did not employ  standardized experimental methods or set systematic research goals. Even as new universities began to spring up throughout France and the German states in the early nineteenth century, providing institutional support for teaching and research in science, Oxford and Cambridge remained steadfastly unchanged by the scientific spirit invigorating their continental counterparts.

The Cambridge of 1819, from which the Philosophical Society first emerged, would be virtually unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the university as it stands today. The constituent colleges were little more than finishing schools for the English clergy, teaching theology and classics to young Anglican men. Meanwhile the university itself was effectively a small administrative department whose only job was to award degrees. Certainly there was no science to be found in the formal Cambridge education.  Lectures on topics such as natural history were entirely optional, and none of the content was examined.

It is little wonder that Cambridge at the start of the nineteenth century was an “intellectual backwater” as far as science was concerned. This pithy description comes courtesy of Dr Susannah Gibson, who has recently written a book – The Spirit of Inquiry – to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Cambridge Philosophical Society and reflect on its profound influence on scientific thinking and research in Britain and beyond.

The story begins with the election of Adam Sedgwick to the post of Woodwardian Chair of Geology in 1818 – a slightly odd choice, given that Sedgwick had no formal geological training. To rectify his lack of expertise, Sedgwick promptly organised a trip to the Isle of Wight with his friend John Stevens Henslow so that he could learn the rudiments of practical geology and mapping. Returning to Cambridge, Sedgwick and Henslow were keen to share their geological findings with their colleagues – but who in Cambridge would care, let alone recognize the significance of their research? It quickly became apparent to the two men that they were going to have to take matters into their own hands, by founding a new scientific society for Cambridge. In the autumn of 1819, they held an open meeting in a lecture room beneath the old University Library, which any Cambridge graduate with an interest in science was welcome to attend. The result was the formation of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, an organisation which would bring like-minded researchers together to discuss the latest advances in science and foster a spirit of curiosity among the students.

The society soon came to be a hub of intellectual discourse, drawing in speakers across a dizzying range of topics. Scientific powerhouses including John Herschel, Charles Babbage and James Clerk Maxwell all made appearances at the society’s early meetings, which continued uninterrupted every Monday (even through both World Wars) for the next two hundred years. Cambridge’s first scientific library and Natural History Museum were both formed from the society’s expansive collection of various books and specimens. Such was the success of the society that it received a Royal Charter from William IV in 1832, a milestone that was celebrated jubilantly. According to written correspondences from that time, the night began with a “blow-out” at the Eagle pub, after which  society members retired to the rooms of a slightly reluctant Sedgwick and kept him up until the early hours of  the morning.

Gibson has been particularly keen to stress the unique support that the Cambridge Philosophical Society provided to young researchers, giving them a platform to present their ideas – however unpolished – at a time when most other scientific societies tended to give precedence to established names. One such occasion was at a society meeting in 1835, when Henslow read out a letter sent to him by a recent Cambridge graduate on a far-flung voyage mapping the coastlines of South America. Though the purpose of the expedition was mainly to advance British maritime trade interests, the captain had sought a learned man to serve as the ship’s naturalist, who could collect specimens and also provide intelligent conversation. The rest of the story is one of the most famous in the history of science, and it was thanks to his observations of Galapagos finches on this voyage that the young Charles Darwin was able to begin formulating his seminal theory of evolution by natural selection.

At the society meetings, bathed in flickering gaslight, audiences listened enraptured as Henslow recounted Darwin’s adventures and transported them to distant lands that they would likely never see themselves. The letters proved to be so popular that the society began publishing them in print, making them Darwin’s first work to reach a public audience. Darwin himself was initially alarmed by their publication, worrying that the letters weren’t good enough to be widely read. However, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that they were very well received and later used this fact to convince his father – who previously believed Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle to be a waste of time – that he was well suited to the study of the natural world.

Two hundred years later, the Cambridge Philosophical Society continues to support young researchers through grants and prizes such as the Henslow Fellowship and the Sir Isaac Newton Bursary. Though the society is much transformed, with its collections dispersed across Cambridge and its buildings repurposed, it maintains the same spirit of inquiry that fuelled its creation and transformed the University of Cambridge into a scientific powerhouse. Students and researchers today should be mindful of the great effort and determination that was required to transform the public perception of science from a gentleman’s pastime to a serious academic discipline. Just as Sedgwick and Henslow sought to move with the changing times, recognising the growing importance of science and jolting Cambridge out of its intellectual inertia, we too must be prepared to challenge conventions and engage with controversial ideas as they emerge. If we close our minds, we risk missing out on the next Darwin.

Zak Lakota-Baldwin is a History and Philosophy of Science undergraduate at St John's College. Artwork by Serene Dhawan.