Royal Society Publishing

‘Divine right’ or democracy? The Royal Society ‘revolt’ of 1935

Jeff Hughes


In October 1934, several Fellows of the Royal Society submitted a petition critical of the oligarchic nature of the Society's Council and the power wielded by a small elite in the Society's activities. The ‘Royal Society Reform Group’ also voiced concern over the Society's neglect of the increasingly pressing public issue of the ‘social responsibility of science’, and fundamentally questioned the role of the Royal Society as a representative body for science. Against a background of national economic crisis and political upheaval, the reformers sought to ensure that the Royal Society should act as an authoritative public voice for scientists rather than for establishment science. In so doing they raised profound political issues concerning the relationships between the Society, working scientists, other scientific institutions and the wider polity. The Reform Group's campaign culminated in the first contested Council election in living memory in November 1935, when more than half of the Fellowship attended in person to vote. In this paper I explore the activities and changing public role of the Royal Society in the inter-war years, the reformers' campaign, the Royal Society's response and the outcomes of this ‘Revolt in the Royal Society’.


In February 1934, Frederick Soddy, Nobel laureate and Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford University, privately circulated a letter to all Ordinary Fellows of the Royal Society. He began bluntly: I am finding my Oath of Allegiance to the Royal Society increasingly irksome by reason of the virtual exclusion of the Ordinary Fellows from all rights and advantages of Fellowship, and the increasing concentration of these rights and advantages in a self-selected Council. In my view this can only end in the Royal Society ceasing from being a national society for improving natural knowledge, and, while no doubt, improving those aspects favoured by its business administration suppressing those not favoured by or dangerous to existing authority, whether scientific or public.1 He was therefore, he continued, inviting support for the establishment of a Reform Group ‘pledged to uphold and restore the rights and advantages of Fellowship to the Ordinary Fellows of the Royal Society’. Outlining two general types of reform that he thought might form the basis for a reformist manifesto—rights of Fellows regarding publication in the Society's journals and the right of Fellows to elect new members by postal ballot—Soddy signed off, thoughtfully enclosing a reply slip and an envelope for his fellow Fellows' convenience.

Although perhaps some of them choked over their breakfast while reading it, Soddy's letter produced the desired reaction from the Fellows. In all, 91 of them—one-fifth of the Fellowship—wrote to him to agree in principle with his concerns. The formation of the ‘Royal Society Fellowship Group’ and the ensuing debate within the Society precipitated the first contested election to the Society's Council for almost a century.

What the press soon dubbed the 1935 ‘revolt’ in the Royal Society came at a key moment of political and institutional debate in British science. As the British polity itself sought stability from financial crisis and political extremism in a National Government, the sciences became a key focus in the debate about national renewal. Portrayed by many as the solution to the economic crisis as Britain struggled its way out of the depression, science for some was also part of a social and political solution. The movements for the social responsibility and social relations of science, for example, were attempts, mainly by left-wing scientific activists, to recast the relationships between science, the state and the public. In this context, the revolt was an attempt to reposition the Royal Society in public debate about science and to make it more representative of science and scientists generally, as against what some perceived to be (and what they feared others would see as) the interests of a small self-interested elite.

In this paper I explore the ‘Royal Society revolt’ of 1935 in the context of the activities and changing role of the Royal Society in the inter-war years. After a brief introductory survey of the growth and development of the Society's activities under Charles Sherrington and Ernest Rutherford in the 1920s, I focus more closely on the brief but intense campaign for reform in the mid 1930s. For the reformers, democracy within the Royal Society and science's place within the wider polity—and particularly the Royal Society's capacity to take a lead and to speak for science and its potentiality in troubled economic and political times—were intimately linked. Although the ‘revolt’ was unsuccessful in the short term and produced no immediate reforms, it nudged the Royal Society's managers towards a more engaged relationship with the Fellows. In doing so, it posed fundamental and, for some, troubling questions about the meaning, purpose and conduct of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society in the 1920s: Sherrington and Rutherford

The Royal Society emerged from the Great War with a mixed record and an uncertain future. Although the Society and its Fellows had made substantial contributions to the scientific war effort, the wartime controversy over Arthur Schuster's secretaryship had caused great embarrassment to its President, J. J. Thomson.2 In the new institutional and political postwar landscape, the 1918 debate over the control of the National Physical Laboratory and its surrender to the nascent Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was a blow to the Society's influence in government.3 Delays caused by the war and mounting financial problems also led to the formal abandonment of the prestigious International Catalogue of Scientific Literature in 1922.4 Against the collapse of scientific internationalism and the International Association of Academies during the war, the Society worked hard to restore internal and international scientific relations by electing Schuster Foreign Secretary in 1920. He had played a major part in the creation of the International Research Council in 1918–19, helped the Society secure a Treasury Grant-in-Aid of £2000 a year for subscriptions to the various international unions, and added £2000 of his own to this sum to help cover delegates' travel expenses.5 The Society also argued successfully for an increase in the Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Investigations from £5000 to £6000 a year, expanding its scope as a patron and promoter of research through the support of individual researchers.6

This expansion continued under the presidency of Charles Sherrington (1920–25).7 During his tenure the Society worked carefully to consolidate its financial position and to rebuild its influence both on government and on national science. Scientific journals assumed a new importance as British science reconstituted itself after the war, and under the stewardship of Physical Secretary James Jeans the Society's publications were placed on a sound commercial footing and underwent considerable expansion. This was achieved partly through an increase in the Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Publication from £1000 to £2500 in 1925,8 and partly through Jeans's extraordinarily energetic processing of papers submitted for publication, in collaboration with Ronald Winckworth (later the Society's Assistant Secretary).9 More significantly, the Society began to develop its role as a major promoter and patron of university-based research. In 1913 the Society had maintained nine Research Funds on an income of about £2400. A series of postwar bequests—the Foulerton (1919, £90 000), Messel (1920, four-fifths residue of the Messel estate, accrued to £135 534 by 1938), Mond (1923, £50 000) and Yarrow (1923, £100 000)—substantially increased the Society's role in the sponsorship of research. The creation of the Foulerton, Yarrow and, later, Messel professorships all significantly helped shape both the institutional and intellectual landscape of inter-war British science—and indeed the upper echelons of the later Royal Society itself: the first three Royal Society Foulerton Professors, for example, were E. H. Starling, A. V. Hill (Biological Secretary 1935–40) and E. D. Adrian (Foreign Secretary 1945–50, President 1950–1955).10 Although the establishment of university-based senior research posts took the Society into new territory as a patron, its expansion did not extend to women, even in the light of postwar suffrage and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Council discussed the admission of women to the Fellowship at length in 1922–23 and took legal advice, which concluded that women were in principle eligible for election, subject to minor amendments to the Statutes. Nothing happened, however, and the issue fell into abeyance—where it remained for 20 years.11

When Ernest Rutherford succeeded Sherrington as President in 1925, he inherited a Royal Society that was in a fairly healthy financial and organizational shape but in poor physical condition—a situation rectified by Henry Lyons (elected Foreign Secretary in 1928 and Treasurer in 1929), who oversaw the refurbishment of the Society's premises, bringing it materially into the modern world.12 Beyond this structural renewal, Rutherford reinvigorated the Society's meetings. The septuagenarian chemist Henry Armstrong wrote to him in 1926: ‘Your attitude in the Chair is delightful: to have a President asking questions & promoting discussion is an astounding departure. You may restore a dead body to life if you persevere & get a little human feeling into the show.’13 But Rutherford was politically savvy too. He spearheaded an initiative to strengthen relations with government. Resurrecting an old tradition, Rutherford and his Officers carefully saw to the election of Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin (1927) and Ramsay MacDonald (1930) to the Fellowship under Statute 12.14

Rutherford was astute in other ways. In 1931, a year after retiring from the presidency, he secured part of the 1923 Mond bequest—some £15 000—to create a large new laboratory for the Russian physicist Peter Kapitza at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. The Royal Society Mond Laboratory was opened by Stanley Baldwin (then Lord President of the Council in the National Government) in a grand ceremony in 1933. Kapitza was also appointed to a newly created professorship with the proceeds of the Messel bequest.15 By contemporary standards, the Royal Society had now become a patron of ‘Big Science’.16 But what some saw as arrogation of Royal Society resources to Cambridge (under a Cambridge President—Frederick Gowland Hopkins) was not universally popular. After the news broke in April 1935 that Kapitza had been detained in the Soviet Union during his annual sojourn there in 1934, Rutherford and Hopkins wrote letters to The Times expressing the ‘shock’ of the scientific world and calling for Kapitza to be allowed to return to Britain. Ignoring the diplomatic niceties of these moves, Henry Armstrong countered that British scientists were relieved, rather than shocked, at the loss of Kapitza. Moreover, he argued that a number of scientists had thought that the use of the Mond Fund to support a new laboratory for Kapitza had been ‘unjustifiable’ and that ‘the whole policy of the Society in funding research professorships, of an ultra-academic type, is suspect.’17

Armstrong's complaint was symptomatic of wider discontent among the Fellowship in the early to mid 1930s about the Society's role with regard to British science as a whole, its policy for the direct support of elite research, and its relationship to the state, to the polity and to the public. In these debates, the structures of governance, the responsibilities of its Officers and Fellows and the very purpose and meaning of the Society itself were at issue. We know a great deal, of course, about the responses of the British Science Guild, the British Association, the Association of Scientific Workers and the more radical left-wing scientists to the political and economic difficulties of the early 1930s, for example through the development of the social relations of science movement.18 And although we have penetrating analyses of the relationship between the Royal Society and the wider polity in the seventeenth century, we know little about the role of the Royal Society in mid-twentieth-century debates about the politics of knowledge.19 It is to the Society's institutional politics in this period, and in particular the Fellows' ‘revolt’ of 1935, that we now turn.

Defending democracy: reform and the Royal Society in the 1930s

After the Wall Street crash of October 1929 and the ensuing depression, the established political and social systems and values seemed to many to have broken down. The collapse of the second Labour Government and the threat of uprising even in the Navy in the Invergordon mutiny of September 1931 brought political turmoil to Britain. Although the formation of a National Government under former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in the autumn of 1931 was the chief political response to this breakdown, there was much talk of the need for a new approach to politics: communism and fascism were attractive alternatives to many, and the period witnessed the formation of several new political parties and groupings transcending established political divisions (among them Oswald Mosley's short-lived New Party).20 Leading scientists were involved in these debates. Rutherford and Hopkins were signatories (along with Ernest Bevin, Arthur Eddington, E. M. Forster, Harold Macmillan, Siegfried Sassoon, Ralph Vaughan Williams and many others) of a public manifesto on ‘Democracy and Leadership’ in February 1934. Rejecting communism and fascism and seeking a British ‘middle way’, this programme called for a new and constructively ‘scientific’ approach to political leadership to defend liberty and democracy against encroaching totalitarianism.21

If Rutherford and Hopkins hoped that the Royal Society would be called to a role of leadership in a new political dispensation, others not only shared the view but sought a much more direct and engaged approach. Rejecting both the constitutionalist methods of the elite scientific establishment and the focus on the social relations and planning of science of the more radical left, a substantial body of scientific opinion argued that the institutions of British science should take a strong lead in establishing a sense of social responsibility among scientists and promoting science and its potential applications to government and the public.22 One of those closely identified with this movement was Frederick Soddy.

Professor of Chemistry at Oxford since 1919, Frederick Soddy was well known in the 1910s and 1920s as a researcher in and popularizer of radioactivity (his 1908 book The interpretation of radium was much admired by H. G. Wells; it went into four editions and was still in print in the 1930s).23 He was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on isotopy, and although in the early 1920s he was at the peak of his career, he notably ‘failed’ to establish a radioactivity research school at Oxford, engaging instead in protracted and often acrimonious controversies with the university and his colleagues in his attempts to improve conditions in the antiquated chemistry laboratories.24 With his robust sense of independent-mindedness and willingness to challenge orthodoxy, Soddy reflected that, in his relations with his High Table colleagues in Oxford, he was a ‘catfish among the cod’.25

During the 1920s Soddy also turned to economics, publishing several tracts on the need for fundamental reform of the economic system. In his pamphlets Cartesian economics. The bearing of physical science on state stewardship (1921), The inversion of science and a scheme of scientific reformation (1924) and Money versus man (1931), Soddy argued for new measures of wealth and exchange.26 He became deeply involved in a series of groups concerned with monetary and social reform, including Social Credit, the Economic Freedom League, the Chandos Group (to which such conservative luminaries as T. S. Eliot were affiliated) and the New Europe Group and the New Britain Group (in 1933 Soddy succeeded Patrick Geddes as President of the New Europe Group, and held the position until his death in 1956). All of these organizations sought to reassert the primacy of the individual, and most sought a ‘third way’ between capitalism and collectivism and between communism and fascism, melding ideas of monetary and political reform and social and spiritual renewal.27

Soddy's reformism naturally extended to the institutions of science, and indeed made them central to the project of social reorganization. In the foreword to a 1935 collection of essays by Sir Daniel Hall and others, The frustration of science, he lashed out at the complacency of the ‘official and professional bodies representing science and medicine’, which had as yet ‘hardly emerged from the easy but very questionable attitude that it is no concern of theirs what they are hired out for’—a jibe at the conceit of ‘pure’ science in a time of economic depression. The public, he urged, should require that universities and learned societies should no longer evade their responsibilities and hide under the guise of false humility as the hired servants of the world their work has made possible, but do that for which they are supported in cultured release from routine occupations, and speak the truth though the heavens fall.28 Against what he saw as its conservative consensual quietism, Soddy was one of many who wanted the Royal Society to take a more active and conspicuous lead in public affairs. An updated expression of his long-held views on the ‘inversion’ of science, Soddy's polemics on scientific reform in the mid 1930s were also perhaps energized by a more immediate and personal encounter with the conservatism of scientific institutions and the apparently arbitrary and unaccountable power of their officials: his failed attempts to secure the publication of a lengthy paper on atomic physics by John Tutin. In brief, Tutin, a naval architect, had become interested in atomic physics as a result of reading the 1932 edition of Soddy's book The interpretation of radium and had assiduously read all the early papers on the subject. During the course of his reading, he had become convinced that the configuration of the conventional Rutherford–Bohr atom should be inverted, with a negatively charged nucleus and orbiting protons. Claiming that his ‘alternative atom’ provided a superior explanation of various experimental observations, including metallurgical phenomena of potential industrial importance, Tutin had tried to publish his paper in various outlets, with no success. In 1933 Soddy communicated Tutin's paper to the Journal of the Chemical Society, which also refused to publish it. Furious at the implied slight to his own scientific judgement and professional standing, Soddy immediately resigned his membership of the Chemical Society and took out an advertisement in Nature offering for sale all of his copies of its Journal.29

Soddy then tried to communicate Tutin's paper to the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The paper was received in October 1933 and reviewed by two referees, O. W. Richardson and C. G. Darwin, both of whom rejected it.30 The decision was ratified by the Physics Sectional Committee in January 1934, and the paper was returned to the author.31 In the opinion of Soddy and Tutin, however, both referees were themselves too closely connected with the Rutherford–Bohr orthodoxy to be able to offer an objective judgement (Darwin had been in Rutherford's department at Manchester before the war and had personally assisted at the birth of the nuclear model of the atom in 1911). Among the members of the Physics Sectional Committee in January 1934 were F. W. Aston and C. D. Ellis, key members of Rutherford's staff at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.

Rejected all round, Tutin eventually published his work in a book, The atom, which appeared in 1934 with a foreword by Soddy railing against the dangers of established orthodoxy.32 With his broad commitment to the reform of the leading scientific institutions and the trigger of the Tutin affair, which doubtless seemed to him to encapsulate everything that was wrong with the Society and the scientific establishment, it was at this point that Soddy embarked on his campaign to shake up the Royal Society with his letter to the Ordinary Fellows in February 1934. There is clear evidence that Soddy had Tutin in mind and Rutherford and the rest of the establishment in his sights when he wrote in his memorandum that one of the aims of the proposed reform should be to restore the [r]ight of Fellows communicating to the Society papers, in matters in which they are expert, whether their own or from others, to know the referees, if any, by whom the communication is to be adjudged, and to object to them on grounds obviously debarring them from acting as judges, such as that they are originators of, or strong supporters of experiments or theories contrary to or challenged by the communication.33 The Tutin affair had bitten deep.

The Royal Society Reform Group and the 1935 Council elections

Yet there was much more to Soddy's campaign than personal grievance. The fact that 91 Fellows indicated total or partial agreement with Soddy's memorandum (see appendix 1 for a list of signatories) demonstrates much more widespread dissatisfaction within the Fellowship about the management of the Society. Soddy organized a series of meetings in the spring and summer of 1934 at which the views of the would-be reformers were collected. It became clear that there was a ‘widely held feeling’ that ‘a Council composed in part of longer-term Officers and in part of shorter-term non-official members tends to be dominated unduly by and to leave the initiative too much in the hands of the Officers.’ Council, the reformers felt, ‘should be more representative of the experience of the Society as a whole.’34

The campaign gathered momentum in the autumn, when a formal proposal for the reform of the Society was submitted to its Council. Signed by 33 of the original group, it demanded more far-reaching changes than had been suggested in Soddy's original letter. Based on the premise that ‘the Royal Society would increase its powers of promoting the advancement of science and the welfare of the community if steps were taken by the Council to utilize more fully than is done at present the counsel and initiative of the general body of Fellows’, the notice went on to propose that the maximum period of Officers' terms be restricted, that the period of service of ordinary members of Council be increased, and that Council be elected by postal ballot.35 To these demands were added several suggestions as to how the effectiveness and representativeness of Council could be improved. Soddy submitted the memorandum to the Secretaries of the Society in February 1935 above the names of all 92 original signatories to his letter of the previous year.36 The gauntlet had been thrown down.

The Society responded quickly. Council discussed the reformers' memorandum at two meetings and quickly rejected their demands—unanimously for the most part, although the rejection of a postal ballot was by a majority of 16 to 4.37 The Treasurer, Henry Lyons, was mandated to prepare an official response for circulation to the Fellows, outlining the historical background to the Statutes of the Society as a way of demonstrating that the current constitution and the ‘nature of the authority for the current procedures in nomination and election of the Council and of the Society's Officers’ were entirely legitimate and had themselves been arrived at as the result of due democratic process. Circulated to all Fellows, the Society's response concluded by noting that Council had regarded it as ‘probable that some of those who signed the Memorial failed to realize the revolutionary changes in the constitution of the Society which some of its wording implied.’38 If this was intended to intimidate, however, the Officers had misjudged their man. Soddy hit back with a blistering letter condemning Council's response as being ‘entirely negative in character … with its implicit conclusion that it is not possible to alter the traditional procedure’39—proof, as it were, that the Society was as an autocratic and oligarchic institution more concerned to protect its own interests than those of its Fellows or of British science.

By this time, the reformers had in any case already decided to push their campaign a stage further by contesting the elections to Council in November 1935. A further flurry of letters and memoranda followed, and several of Soddy's supporters withdrew as it became clear that a formal challenge to the Council slate would be mounted.40 In search of a credible candidate for the presidency, the group approached the agriculturalist Sir Daniel Hall.41 As an elder statesman of science and one identified with reform and the social responsibility of science movement, Hall was the perfect choice for the opposition slate. Much to the reformers' disappointment, however, he declined the invitation to stand for the presidency, although he subsequently accepted an official nomination for ordinary membership of Council. The reformers sought another figurehead for the Presidential nomination and eventually chose the veteran Almroth Wright to face the official nominee, W. H. Bragg, in a contest for the presidency. Soddy himself would challenge Lyons for the Treasurership; his Oxford colleague John Townsend and A. T. Masterman would stand for Physical Secretary and Biological Secretary, respectively; and Henry Armstrong would stand against A. C. Seward for Foreign Secretary.

Tension mounted as 30 November, the day of the Society's Anniversary Meeting and the Council election, approached. The reformers issued a pamphlet appealing for support for their candidates not in the light of their individual claims but ‘as a vote of no confidence in the existing methods of selecting Council rather than in the individuals composing it.’42 On the day, an unprecedented number of Fellows attended, among them Ramsay MacDonald, Prime Minister in the National Government until just a few months before. Roughly a half of the total membership of the Society was present, and ‘an air of amiable excitement was noticeable’, with ‘the curious spectacle of about two hundred eminent scientists clustering together and queuing before the ballot box’.43 While the votes were being counted and Fellows tensely awaited the result, they crowded into the Society's meeting room to hear Hopkins's last Presidential Address. Hopkins, hoping to restore a sense of decorum and seeking to reunite the Fellowship, devoted part of his address to the social responsibilities of science. He recognized the claims of the social responsibility of science movement and the wondered whether the Society might do more to take the initiative in its relations with government ‘and even at times make its own appeal to the public conscience’.44

The result of the election, when it came, surprised no one (figure 1).45 The outcome—an overwhelming endorsement of the official Council slate—demonstrated that the voting had been along clear factional lines, with a 20–25 hard core of the Reform Group voting consistently for their own candidates, and the majority of the Fellows supporting the establishment candidates. With his 208 votes, Daniel Hall had clearly attracted the votes of reformers and non-reformers alike. The final result, one eminent scientist told the Manchester Guardian, was that ‘the National Government has been returned with an overwhelming majority.’46 Coming only two weeks after an election in which the real National Government had been comfortably returned under Baldwin, the equation ‘Royal Society Council = National Government = stability’ was a powerfully resonant one. At the Anniversary Dinner at the May Fair Hotel that evening, the new President told the glittering guest-list of academics, politicians, diplomats and industrialists that he ‘deprecated the tendency for scientific societies to drift into separate activities’ and that ‘[t]he nation which consists only of specialists was in danger of becoming a shoddy nation.’47 Unity would be one of Bragg's key themes thereafter.48

Figure 1.

The 1935 Royal Society election results.

The press were quick to pick up on the failed November revolution at the Royal Society. Although it generally played down the significance of the contest, the Manchester Guardian noted that ‘the challenge indicates that changes in the government and attitude of the Royal Society will occur sooner or later.’ The malcontents may have been a minority, but a ‘large number’ sympathized with their desire that the Royal Society should give a more positive lead concerning those contemporary social problems that have definite scientific aspects. They wish to see scientists doing more to help the world in its difficulties, and they would welcome changes in the government of the Royal Society that would make such action easier.49 However, the Daily Mail's coverage, with its headlines ‘Revolt in the Royal Society’, ‘Famous men demand reforms’ and ‘Tell the public more of science’, was more sensationalist. For the rebels, Soddy told the Mail's Walter Farr that ‘[t]he battle for reorganisation has started. We shall not cease to fight until we have turned the Royal Society into an organisation which shall be to the scientist what the British Medical Association is to the doctor.’ The Society should ‘cease to be a private bureau and become a democratic body, a real national society making use of scientific knowledge for the direct benefit of the public.’ A ‘new system’ was needed ‘to make known to the public the achievements of scientists at the earliest possible moment, so that everyone may have fuller knowledge of what is being done to help humanity and of scientific inventions which play so vital a part in the lives of the ordinary man and woman.’ A ‘“breath of fresh air” should be let in on many of the most sacred rules of the society to clear away old prejudices and establish an organisation which shall make the best use of the resources at its command.'50

Farr also managed to get the ‘official’ view from A. V. Hill, just elected as Biological Secretary. Hill dismissed the rebel ‘gang’ out of hand: ‘I should say the “gang” does not represent much more than 5 per cent of the Fellows’, he said. ‘I do not take its view seriously, and, in any case, the council, having considered its protestations, has sent out a memorandum in reply which I should have thought would have satisfied the rebels.’ Tactically, this candid statement was perhaps a mistake. The outgoing Biological Secretary, Henry Dale, wrote to Lyons that though ‘I think we licked the Soddists all right’, I am a bit sorry that my friend and successor [Hill] took it upon himself to give an ‘official view’ a few hours after his election. I don't for a moment suppose he so termed it; but he will have to realize that he can't now give interviews as A. V. Hill; he will have to be content with silence as Sec. R.S., unless he is voicing the view of colleagues [and] Council by agreement.51 While Hill would soon learn the arts of consensual governance and the constraints imposed by collective Council responsibility, the Society's managers quickly responded to the Mail's lurid coverage by releasing to the press the official memorandum responding to the petition of the 92. In counter-response Soddy again blasted the ‘many glaring examples of stupidity’ in the Society's procedures, and now opened up a far wider and more sensitive set of issues: ‘The council will not face up to the … ever-increasing dangers of not safeguarding the public against such things as poison-gas. Scientists, having invented these horrors, should be empowered to take a strong line in defending the community against them.’52 More directly still, he told another newspaper that in the Royal Society there was ‘no democratic control, and Fellows are not consulted. A small group has a stranglehold on the Society and seems to think it rules by Divine right. Anyone with the courage to oppose it is a marked man. The group can almost destroy him.’53

Conclusion: managing the Fellowship, managing history

There was little opportunity to put this apocalyptic view to the test. Soddy's retirement from his Oxford chair in 1936 removed him from the fray, although he continued to rail against complacent orthodoxy (and the falsification of scientific history) for many years. At the Royal Society, Bragg's new administration steered a careful path through the fractious scientific politics of the late 1930s. It continued to support research: by 1939, with the addition of further gifts and bequests (including the Warren Fund), the Society had at its disposal some £31 000 a year for scientific research. There may not have been a revolution in leadership or approach, but there were changes. One detects more sympathy towards engineers and the ‘applied’ sciences in elections and other appointments. And there was much more communication between the Society's Officers and officials and the Fellows. At the suggestion of George Udny Yule, a newsletter-type publication was initiated ‘for the information of Fellows from time to time, in order that they may be kept more fully informed of the activities of the Society.’54 Occasional Notices made its first appearance in April 1937. It was very popular, and served a useful purpose in more than one way. In July 1937 Bragg told Hill that the Occasional Notices idea was ‘going strongly’. He wondered whether ‘you might admit letters on RS business (not scientific) from Fellows. Some grievances might be ventilated and blown away and there might be good suggestions.’55 The Officers had clearly learned from the revolt, and were developing new ways of managing the Fellowship.

The first issue of Occasional Notices was successful, but thin. Henry Lyons now assumed control and, helped by the new Assistant Secretary, John Griffith Davies, quickly made it into something more substantial: Notes and Records of the Royal Society, whose first issue appeared in April 1938. This was now a fully fledged periodical that ‘might usefully include information of historical interest which would not be printed in either Philosophical Transactions or Proceedings’.56 On its appearance, E. F. Armstrong—son of H. E. (who had died in 1937)—wrote to congratulate Soddy: ‘Your Royal Society crusade is rapidly bearing fruit. What a lot of changes! How interested my father would have been. The trouble with the Royal is that it is mainly a branch of the Civil Service.’57 Notes and Records thus became the chief historical outlet of the Society and, although no longer ventilating grievances, it remains popular with and widely read by the Fellows.

After his historical work on the Statutes and on the Society's administration in constructing the defence against the ‘Soddists’, Lyons clearly developed an appetite for history. In 1935 he was appointed to produce a new edition of The Record of the Royal Society, which appeared in 1940. By the time this magisterial tome was out, Lyons had retired from the treasurership and had started work on a book on the history of the Society. The Royal Society, 1660–1940. A history of its administration under its charters appeared (just) posthumously in 1944.58 As Roy MacLeod perceptively observed long ago, Lyons's 1944 history presented the development of the Society's constitution since the 1840s ‘as merely a chapter of consolidation, the natural consequence of enlightened policies set in motion by early Victorian “professionals”.’59 MacLeod characterized Lyons's account as ‘corporate self-description’ of a kind ‘not uncommon among institutions’. Lyons's history was in fact a masterly attempt to create exactly that impression: a history of progressive improvement in which such controversy as there was could be located in the distant, and therefore safe, past. Although he dealt with the recent attempt at constitutional reform in the space of two pages, Lyons glossed it as being inconsequential, a sign of healthy interest in the affairs of the Society among the Fellowship. He made no mention of the political context of the debate or its outcomes, despite his own intimate involvement: the history for public consumption would be carefully glossed as one of gradual progress, effacing the lived political conflict.

It is perhaps ironic that the chief results of a revolt that focused attention on the future were mostly concerned with the past. Lyons used history to ground the Society in a long and prestigious tradition—and to avoid facing the difficult questions that the revolt raised: What is the purpose of the Royal Society? Who is it for?—The Officers? The Fellows? The nation? In the end, these questions were answered in part by World War II, when the Society again mobilized. But although the war of 1939–45 changed the Society again, these questions remained, and remain.


For permission to consult and cite manuscripts in their care, I am grateful to the Royal Society Centre for History of Science; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Churchill College Archives Centre, Cambridge; and the Science Museum Library and Archives, Wroughton. For helpful comments I am grateful to Peter Collins and participants at the conference ‘The Royal Society and science in the twentieth century’, at which a shorter version of this paper was presented.

Appendix 1. Signatories of the notice to the Council of the Royal Society, 7 February 1935

nameageelected FRSposition
G. Anrep441928Professor of Physiology, Cairo
E. F. Armstrong571920industrial chemistry consultant
H. E. Armstrong861876Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Imperial College/City & Guilds
E. B. Bailey541930Professor of Geology, Glasgow
W. B. Benham741907Professor of Biology, Otago, New Zealand
W. A. Bone631905Professor of Chemical Technology, Imperial College
J. Chunder Bose761920Emeritus Professor of Physics, Presidency College, Calcutta
R. Broom681920Curator, Transvaal Museum, Pretoria
S. G. Brown621916engineer/inventor
W. Bulloch661913Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology, London
F. W. Carter*641932Consulting Engineer, British Thomson-Houston Co., Rugby
J. T. Cash801887Emeritus Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Aberdeen
D. L. Chapman651913Tutor in Chemistry, Jesus College, Oxford
F. D. Chattaway741907Tutor in Chemistry, Queen's College, Oxford
A. J. Clark491931Professor of Materia Medica, Edinburgh
J. B. Cohen751911Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Leeds
S. M. Copeman721903ex-Ministry of Health
J. Crichton-Browne941883ex-physician/physiologist
R. E. B. Crompton891933engineer
C. F. Cross791917analytical consulting chemist
W. E. Dalby721913Emeritus Professor of Engineering, London
C. R. Davidson591931ex-Royal Observatory
C. H. Desch*601923Head of Metallurgy Department, National Physical Laboratory
G. M. B. Dobson*451927Reader in Meteorology, Oxford
C. A. L. Evans501925Professor of Physiology, University College London
A. J. Ewart621922Professor of Botany and Plant Physiology, Melbourne
L. N. G. Filon591910Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, University College London
R. A. Fisher441929Statistical Department, Rothamsted
J. A. Fleming851892Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering, University College London
M. O. Forster621905ex-Director, Salters' Institute of Industrial Chemistry, London
P. F. Frankland761891Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Birmingham
M. H. Gordon621924consulting bacteriologist, St Bartholomew's Hospital
A. G. Green691915ex-Professor of Tinctorial Chemistry, Leeds
M. Greenwood541928Professor of Epidemiology and Medical Statistics, London
A. D. Hall701909Director, John Innes Horticultural Institution
H. Hartridge481926Professor of Physiology, St Bartholomew's Hospital
H. S. Hele-Shaw801889Emeritus Professor of Engineering, Liverpool
G. G. Henderson731916Regius Professor of Chemistry, Glasgow
E. Heron-Allen731919ex-solicitor; naturalist
J. T. Hewitt661910ex-Professor of Chemistry, East London College
L. Hill771900ex-Director of Applied Physiology, National Institute for Medical Research
J. C. Irvine571918ex-Professor of Chemistry and Principal, St Andrews
H. Jeffreys431925Reader in Geophysics, Cambridge
F. W. Keeble641913ex-Professor of Botany, Oxford; industrial adviser
A. Keith691913ex-Hunterian Professor, Royal College of Surgeons
J. P. Kendall451927Professor of Chemistry, Edinburgh
P. F. Kendall781924Emeritus Professor of Geology, Leeds
F. S. Kipping711897Professor of Chemistry, Nottingham
J. B. Leathes701911Emeritus Professor of Physiology, Sheffield
R. T. Leiper531923Professor of Helminthology, London
J. S. Macdonald671917Emeritus Professor of Physiology, Liverpool
W. McDougall631912ex-Professor of Psychology, Harvard
A. McKenzie651916Professor of Chemistry, Dundee
J. E. Marsh741906Lecturer in Chemistry, Oxford
A. T. Masterman651915ex-Superintending Inspector, Board of Agriculture and Fisheries
H. E. Maxwell901898ex-politician and naturalist
H. A. Miers*761896ex-Professor of Mineralogy, Oxford
P. C. Mitchell701906ex-Secretary, Zoological Society of London
C. Ll. Morgan821889Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Bristol
J. A. Murray611925ex-Director, Imperial Cancer Research Fund
J. C. Philip611921Director of chemistry laboratories, Imperial College
J. S. Plaskett691923Dominion Astrophysical Laboratory, Canada
H. C. Plummer691920Professor of Mathematics, Military College of Science, Woolwich
W. J. Pope641902Professor of Chemistry, Cambridge
T. S. Price591924Professor of Chemistry, Heriot-Watt
G. T. Prior721912ex-Keeper of Minerals, British Museum
H. S. Raper521929Professor of Physiology, Manchester
L. F. Richardson531926Principal, Paisley Technical College
H. N. Ridley791907ex-Director of Gardens and Forests, Straits Settlements
R. Robinson*481920Professor of Chemistry, Oxford
M. N. Saha411927Professor of Physics, Allahabad
R. A. Sampson681903Professor of Astronomy, Edinburgh; Astronomer Royal for Scotland
G. A. Schott671922ex-Professor of Applied Mathematics, Aberystwyth
C. G. Seligman611919Emeritus Professor of Ethnology, London
E. Sharpey- Schafer841878Emeritus Professor of Physiology, Edinburgh
C. Shearer601916Lecturer in Embryology, Cambridge
F. Soddy571910Professor of Chemistry, Oxford
R. V. Southwell*461925Professor of Engineering, Oxford
C. E. Spearman*711924Emeritus Professor of Psychology, London
G. G. Stoney711911ex-Director of Research, Parsons & Co., Newcastle
J. S. B. Stopford461927Professor of Anatomy, Manchester
J. Swinburne781906consultant engineer
A. G. Tansley631915Professor of Botany, Oxford
J. S. Townsend661903Wykeham Professor of Physics, Oxford
R. S. Troup601926Professor of Forestry, Oxford
J. Walker711900ex-Professor of Chemistry, Edinburgh
M. Walker661931Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering, Manchester
J. C. Willis661919ex-Director, Botanic Gardens, Rio de Janeiro
A. E. Wright731906Professor of Pathology, St. Mary's Hospital, London
W. P. Wynne731896Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Sheffield
S. Young771893ex-Professor of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin
W. H. Young711907ex-Professor of Pure Mathematics, Aberystwyth
  • *General agreement only.

  • Signatory of the formal memorandum to Council, October 1934.

  • Footnotes

    • 1 Soddy, ‘Suggestion to the Ordinary Fellows of the Royal Society for a Reform Group to uphold their Rights’, 19 February 1934, MS Eng. Misc.170, Soddy papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford [hereafter ‘Soddy papers’].

    • 2 L. Badash, ‘British and American views of the German menace in World War I’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 34, 91–121 (1979), especially at pp. 93–98.

    • 3 E. Hutchinson, ‘Scientists and civil servants: the struggle over the National Physical Laboratory in 1918’, Minerva 7, 373–398 (1968–69); R. Moseley, ‘Government science and the Royal Society: the control of the National Physical Laboratory in the inter-war years’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 35, 167–193 (1980).

    • 4 The £14 617 debt from this project was written off in 1935. See The Record of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 4th edn (Royal Society, London, 1940), at pp. 193–195 [hereafter Record 1940]; H. Lyons, The Royal Society, 1660–1940. A history of its administration under its charters (Cambridge University Press, 1944), at p. 310.

    • 5 Record 1940, at p. 111. B. Schroeder-Gudehus, ‘Challenge to transnational loyalties: international scientific organisations after the First World War’, Sci. Stud. 3, 93–118 (1973); A. G. Cock, ‘Chauvinism and internationalism in science: the International Research Council, 1919–1926’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 37, 249–288 (1983). The International Research Council became the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1931: see F. Greenaway, Science international: a history of the International Council of Scientific Unions (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

    • 6 Record 1940, at p. 190. On the earlier history of the Grant-in-Aid see R. M. MacLeod, ‘The Royal Society and the Government grant: notes on the administration of scientific research’, Hist. J. 14, 323–358 (1971).

    • 7 E. G. T. Liddell, ‘Charles Scott Sherrington, 1857–1952’, Obit. Not. Fell. R. Soc. 8, 241–270 (1952).

    • 8 Record 1940, at pp. 191–192.

    • 9 E. A. Milne, Sir James Jeans: a biography. With a memoir by S. C. Roberts (Cambridge University Press, 1952), at pp. 32–58; J. D. G. Davies, ‘Ronald Winckworth, 1884–1950’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 8, 293–296 (1951).

    • 10 Record 1940, at pp. 119–130.

    • 11 J. Mason, ‘The admission of the first women to the Royal Society of London’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 46, 279–300 (1992), at p. 280.

    • 12 H. H. Dale, ‘Henry George Lyons, 1864–1944’, Obit. Not. Fell. R. Soc. 4, 795–809 (1944), especially at p. 804.

    • 13 H. E. Armstrong to Rutherford, 21 March 1926, quoted in D. Wilson, Rutherford: simple genius (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1983), at p. 465.

    • 14 Statute 12 allowed Council to recommend the election of ‘persons who, in their opinion, either have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science, or are such that their election would be of signal benefit to the Society.’ See Yearbook of the Royal Society of London (Harrison & Sons, London, 1936), at p. 74.

    • 15 Wilson, op. cit. (note 13), at pp. 496–537.

    • 16 On pre-1945 ‘Big Science’ see J. Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the bomb (Icon Books, Cambridge, 2002).

    • 17 H. E. Armstrong, ‘Foreign scientists in Britain. Professor Kapitza's recall to Russia’, The Times (7 May 1935), reprinted in L. Badash, Kapitza, Rutherford, and the Kremlin (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1985), at p. 123.

    • 18 Among a large literature, see for example G. Werskey, The visible college. A collective biography of British scientists and socialists of the 1930s (Free Association Books, London, 1978); W. McGucken, Scientists, society and state. The social relations of science movement in Great Britain, 1931–1947 (Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH, 1984); P. Collins, ‘The British Association as a public apologist for science, 1919–1946’, in The parliament of science. The British Association for the Advancement of Science 1831–1981 (ed. R. MacLeod and P. Collins), pp. 211–236 (Science Reviews Ltd, Northwood, 1981).

    • 19 S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the air-pump. Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life (Princeton University Press, 1985).

    • 20 N. Smart, The National Government, 1931–40 (Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1999).

    • 21 ‘Democracy and leadership. A manifesto’, Manchester Guardian (15 February), 20 (1934). This was followed by ‘Liberty and democratic leadership. Four fundamental issues. Manifesto by representative citizens’, Manchester Guardian (17 May), 7 (1934). The manifesto was subsequently expanded in The next five years. An essay in political agreement (Macmillan, London, 1935). Rutherford was a signatory to all three manifestos. A. Marwick, ‘Middle opinion in the thirties: planning, progress and political “agreement”’, Engl. Hist. Rev. 79, 285–298 (1964); T. C. Kennedy, ‘The Next Five Years group and the failure of the politics of agreement in Britain’, Can. J. Hist. 9, 45–68 (1974).

    • 22 On debates about the proper moral conduct of the scientist in the twentieth century, see S. Shapin, The scientific life: a moral history of a late modern vocation (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

    • 23 L. Merricks, The world made new. Frederick Soddy, science, politics, and environment (Oxford University Press, 1996); G. B. Kauffman (ed.), Frederick Soddy (1877–1956) (D. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1986).

    • 24 J. B. Morrell, Science at Oxford 1914–1939. Transforming an arts university (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997), at pp. 324–326 and 353–356; A. D. Cruickshank, ‘Soddy at Oxford’, in Kauffman, op. cit. (note 23), at pp. 157–170.

    • 25 M. Howorth, Pioneer research on the atom. Rutherford and Soddy in a glorious chapter of science. The life story of Frederick Soddy (New World Publications, London, 1958), at p. 234. Howorth's hagiography should be treated, however, with much caution.

    • 26 H. E. Daly, ‘The economic thought of Frederick Soddy’, in Kauffman, op. cit. (note 23), at pp. 199–218.

    • 27 On Soddy's economic and political activities in this period see Merricks, op. cit. (note 23), at pp. 108–155.

    • 28 F. Soddy, ‘Foreword’, in The frustration of science by D. Hall et al., pp. 7–9 (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1935), at pp. 7 and 9.

    • 29 For a brief account of this episode (and of Rutherford's response to the Tutin atom), see R. V. Jones, ‘Oxford physics in transition, 1929–39’, in The making of physicists (ed. R. Williamson), pp. 113–126 (Hilger, Bristol, 1987), at p. 123.

    • 30 Register of papers, Series A (Jan. 1933 – Jun. 1939), entry 197, Royal Society Archives.

    • 31 Minutes of the Sectional Committee for Physics, 25 January 1934, CMB272, Royal Society Archives.

    • 32 J. Tutin, The atom (Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1934).

    • 33 Soddy, op. cit. (note 1).

    • 34 ‘To the Council of the Royal Society’, memorandum dated October 1934, Soddy papers.

    • 35 Ibid.

    • 36 ‘To the Council of the Royal Society’, memorandum dated ‘October 1934 to February 1935’, Soddy papers.

    • 37 Royal Society Council Minutes, 28 February 1935 and 7 March 1935, Royal Society Archives.

    • 38 ‘Election and tenure of the Officers and the Council of the Royal Society’, March 1935, MDA.B2.5, Royal Society Archives.

    • 39 Soddy to Fellows of the Royal Society, 21 June 1935, Soddy papers.

    • 40 See correspondence in MDA.B2.5, Royal Society Archives.

    • 41 On Hall, see E. J. Russell, ‘Alfred Daniel Hall’, Obit. Not. Fell. R. Soc. 4, 229–250 (1942); H. E. Dale, Daniel Hall: pioneer in scientific agriculture (John Murray, London, 1956).

    • 42 ‘Unofficial notice that the election will be contested’, Soddy papers.

    • 43 ‘Challenge within the Royal Society’, Manchester Guardian (3 December), 12 (1935).

    • 44 F. G. Hopkins, ‘Address of the President, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, OM, at the Anniversary Meeting, November 30, 1935’, Proc. R. Soc. A 153, 247–272 (1935), at p. 263.

    • 45 ‘The Royal Society. Burlington House. Ballotting list—November 30th, 1935’, MDA.32.5, Royal Society Archives.

    • 46 Op. cit. (note 43).

    • 47 ‘Work of the Royal Society’, The Times (2 December), 19 (1935).

    • 48 G. Caroe, William Henry Bragg 1862–1942. Man and scientist (Cambridge University Press, 1978).

    • 49 Op. cit. (note 43).

    • 50 W. G. Farr, ‘Revolt in the Royal Society’, Daily Mail (2 December), 13–14 (1935), at p. 13.

    • 51 H. Dale to H. Lyons, 2 December 1935, MS570, Science Museum Library and Archives, Wroughton.

    • 52 ‘Royal Society revolt. Officials' reply’, Daily Mail (3 December), 4 (1935).

    • 53 ‘Royal Society. Demand for reform’, Sydney Morning Herald (23 December 1935), clipping in Soddy papers.

    • 54 The Royal Society. Occasional notices (The Royal Society, London, April 1937), at p. 1.

    • 55 W. H. Bragg to A. V. Hill, 30 July 1937, AVHL I 3/8, A. V. Hill papers, Churchill College, Cambridge.

    • 56 ‘Editorial’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 1 (April), 1 (1938); A. V. Hill, ‘J. D. Griffith Davies, 1899–1953’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 11, 129–133 (1955); Henry Lyons diary, 1937, MS570, Science Museum Library and Archives, Wroughton.

    • 57 E. F. Armstrong to Soddy, 30 May 1938, quoted in Howorth, op. cit. (note 25), at p. 235.

    • 58 H. Lyons, op. cit. (note 4).

    • 59 R. MacLeod, ‘Whigs and savants: reflections on the reform movement in the Royal Society, 1830–48’, in Metropolis and province. Science in British culture, 1780–1850 (ed. I. Inkster and J. Morrell), pp. 55–90 (Hutchinson, London, 1983), at p. 55.

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