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200 years ago: The Cambridge Philosophical Society was founded by a trio of geologists

Douglas Palmer highlights the 200th anniversary of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, a society founded by a trio of geologists and modelled on the Geological Society of London

A model society

Two hundred years ago, three Cambridge geologists devised a plan for a new society, one which would revolutionise scientific teaching and research in the University of Cambridge and beyond. The new Cambridge Philosophical Society was to be a dynamic, effective and progressive and it was modelled on the Geological Society of London.

GSLDramatic beginnings

It was the dramatic geology of the Isle of Wight that acted as a catalyst. During the Easter vacation of 1819, the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, recently appointed as Woodwardian professor of geology, and his geological protégé, the newly graduated John Stevens Henslow, were geologizing on the island. At the time, Thomas Webster’s 1814 wonderful geological map and description of the ‘picturesque ruin and geological antiquity’ of the Isle of Wight were ‘in the hands of every English geologist’ according to Sedgwick. Certainly, Henslow had a copy with him.

Left, The Isle of Wight’s geological drama with highly inclined chalk from a drawing by Thomas Webster (1816) in Noah Heringman Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 317, 299-318, 21 August 2009,

‘See the Fellows Fight’

Sedgwick had recently become a member of the Geological Society, famous for its vigorous parliamentary style proceedings. Although recently elected to the historic Woodwardian professorship in the University of Cambridge, Sedgwick had little knowledge of geology. His attendance at the Society’s meetings provided an excellent crash course in the geological revolution of the early 19th century. He was exposed to the discoveries, arguments and egos of so many of the main ‘players’ in the dynamic new science of geology. Reportedly some people attended the meetings just to ‘see the Fellows Fight’.

A keen naturalist from childhood, Henslow’s interest in geology had been stimulated by the lectures of Cambridge’s first professor of mineralogy Edward D. Clarke, who had been elected as a founding Honorary Member of the Geological Society in 1807. Although several Cambridge professors, such as Clarke, Sedgwick, W. Farish (the Jacksonian professor of Natural Philosophy) and the Regius Professor of Physics, J. Haviland, gave undergraduate lecture courses in scientific subjects, attendance was optional and the subjects were not examined. By 1819, there was increasing criticism that in Cambridge, when compared with some of the major European universities, very little science was taught and none was examined.

A new society

Evidently the stimulating geology of the Isle of Wight and its unresolved problems prompted Sedgwick and Henslow to consider how to provide a forum back in Cambridge that would bring together like-minded scholars with an interest in investigating the natural world. They resolved to found a new society for the communication and advancement of what was then thought of as ‘natural philosophy’—now known as ‘natural science’.

In doing so, they were following in an earlier 18th century tradition of ‘Literary and Philosophical’ societies, eleven of which continued to flourish in the Britain of 1819. However, despite naming the new society, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, it was very different in character to provincial ‘lit. & phil.’ societies. To ensure a high level of discourse, its membership was to be selective and there were to be frequent elections of officers to avoid the establishment of controlling cliques. Adequate premises were required with a large enough meeting room and space for a library and museum. All this required adequate funds.

For a newly elected Woodwardian professor and a keen young naturalist, this was an ambitious project to embark upon and they needed some heavyweight support. Happily, they were able to recruit the professor of mineralogy, the Reverend Edward D. Clarke, to their cause.

Clarke was very much an 18th century dilettante traveller, writer, bon viveur and collector of antiquities and minerals. He was also widely respected in the university, with an extensive network of friends and colleagues. His extrovert personality and practical demonstrations of minerals and crystal models along with models of erupting volcanoes drew large audiences to his lectures.

Inaugural meeting

By November 1819, there was enough interest in the university for an inaugural meeting, open to any graduate. It was a success, with speakers enthusing about the prospect of devising and demonstrating new scientific experiments and communicating their findings. But not everyone in the university was keen on the idea. As Sedgwick wrote to his friend the astronomer John Herschel ‘...some laugh at us; others shrug up their shoulders…a much larger number look on us…with philosophic indifference; and a small number are among our warm friends.’

Nevertheless, there were enough potential members to launch the new society. These included the Reverend W. Farish (an Honorary Member of the Geological Society from 1808) who was appointed President, with J. Haviland as Vice-President. Initially, Sedgwick was one of the Secretaries, then became President in 1831 and again in 1853. Although his health was deteriorating, Clarke became a member of the Society’s Council, whilst Henslow was at first considered too young to hold office but was appointed Secretary in 1821 and held the post until 1842.

The Geological model

Despite its 18th century-style name, the Society’s aims, management structure and selective election of members by secret ballot were all modelled on another 19th century creation, the Geological Society of London. Even the Cambridge Society’s journal was similar in name (‘Transactions’), font and size (quarto), which allowed for generous illustration.

The first volume’s 27 papers and 25 plates included two geological contributions by Sedgwick on the geology of Devon and Cornwall, Henslow’s pioneering geology of Anglesea (sic), a short description of a sub-fossil beaver from the Cambridgeshire Fens and several papers on crystallography by Clarke, John Herschel and Whewell (FGS 1830?). Whilst Sedgwick’s paper was typically discursive and unillustrated, Henslow, like Webster and so many contributors to the Transactions of the Geological Society, took advantage of the format to produce a remarkable coloured geological map, sections and field sketches. A number of well-known engravers were employed for the production of the plates, including Hullmandel, Rowney & Forster and W. Lowry (a member of the Geological Society from 1808).

Clarke quotes Woodward

When Clarke gave the Address at the first formal meeting of the Cambridge society in November 1819, he made a deeper geological connection by quoting Dr John Woodward (1665-1728) whose collection forms the core of the Sedgwick Museum:

From a long train of experience,’ said he, ‘the world is at length convinced, that observations are the only sure grounds, whereon to build a lasting and substantial Philosophy. All partyes are so far agreed upon this matter, that it seems to be now the common sense of Mankind’.

And for Clarke ‘...the main object of the CAMBRIDGE PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY...’ is ‘…to lay open channels of communication for facts connected with the advancement of Philosophy, and also to bring together men who are engaged in common pursuits of Science...

Growth and decline

Following its inauguration, the Society quickly achieved its aim of providing a forum for the whole range of the natural sciences. By the 1830s, it had substantial premises in Cambridge with a meeting room, library and museum. The Society was poised to make a timely difference to science in Cambridge, which was under attack from some influential critics such as the famous Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster. In 1830 he wrote to a friend that ‘I find I have given offence to the Cantabs for saying that there is no person there carrying on a train of original research. Do you know of anybody there who is?

Brewster’s criticism was appropriate for the first part of the 19th century, but by the 1820s progress had been made. The first volume of the Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society contains research not only by the founding trio of geologists—Sedgwick, Clarke and Henslow—but also by Herschel, Babbage, Haviland and Whewell. By the mid-1850s, one of the aims of the Society had been fulfilled—science had at last begun to ‘take-off’ in Cambridge with the institution of the Natural Science Tripos examinations. However, the syllabus was still fundamentally mathematical and few students took the new exams until further changes in the 1850s and ‘60s boosted numbers.

However, natural science was also diverging into numerous increasingly specialized disciplines. As interconnections and communication between the sciences became more tenuous, the society became a victim of its own success. It lost members, had the misfortune to employ a dishonest custodian and had to close its reading room. The Society not only survived but its library ultimately transformed into the university’s main holding of scientific books and periodicals as first the Science Periodicals Library and then the Central Science Library before its unfortunate closure in 2015.

So too from the beginning, the museum, which was the only natural history museum in Cambridge, had grown significantly, but with the Society’s straitened circumstances it could no longer provide a home. By 1865, the natural history collections were moved to university owned rooms on the New Museums Site and formed the basis for a new Zoology Museum. A hundred years later that museum was replaced, and now 40 years on it has just received a major makeover as part of a renovated David Attenborough Building.


By the 1870s, especially with the growth of the physical sciences promoted by the likes of William Cavendish, the Society experienced a renaissance. Nevertheless, there were still complaints about the state of British science compared with Germany. In the House of Commons, the Scottish chemist Lyon Playfair, declared that ‘the Scotch University taught a man how to make a thousand a year, the English University, how to spend it’.

But the opening of the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford and the Cavendish in Cambridge, with the appointment of James Clerk Maxwell as its first professor, made an enormous difference. With Maxwell becoming president in 1875, the Society found a new role and was able to re-establish itself on a more secure financial basis.

Since Sedgwick’s time, geologists have continued to make a significant contribution with a further eight Woodwardian professors and professors of mineralogy serving as president. They include well-known geologists such as W.H. Miller, T. McKenny Hughes, J.E. Marr, A. Hutchinson, W.B.R. King, H.B. Whittington, and currently Simon Conway Morris.

The geological contribution to the founding of the Cambridge Philosophical Society is explored in a new display in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge.

Douglas Palmer, Sedgwick Museum

Further reading

Gibson, S. (2019) The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science. Oxford University Press. 377pp.

Treagus, J. (2017) In Anglesey with Henslow. Geoscientist online.