Colonial Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 1661-1788

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Colonial Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 1661-1788


Raymond Phineas Stearns

The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr., 1946), 208-268.

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Fri Feb 17 03:22:22 2006



That inhabitants of the British colonies in America were

sometimes elected fellows of the Royal Society of London has

been known since the foundation of the Society, but no one has

attempted to prepare from the Society's original records a complete

list of colonial fe1lows.l Such a list, as it may indicate

the names of those colonial scientists, both amateur and professional,

who, by constant intercourse with fellows of the Royal

Society in England and with the Society itself as a corporate

body, contributed most to the introduction and development of

"experimental philosophy" in the New World, it is the purpose

of this paper to supply.

From the aims and practices both of its immediate predecessor,

"The Invisible College," and of a number of its earliest

fellows, the Royal Society inherited as a prime motive of its

existence the accurate collection, classification, and interpretation

of scientific data from all parts of the world. Such an

*The author is Associate Professor of History at the University of

Illinois. He is especially interested in the social and intellectual history of

the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This paper was scheduled to appear in Volume VIII of Osiris. Osiris

was printed in Belgium, and the article had reached the stage of page proofs

before the latest German invasion of Belgium interrupted publication. See

George Sarton, "The Publication of Isis," in Scielzce, XCII (No. 2377, July

19, 1940), 59-60, and Isis, XXXIII (1941), 53.

1 The list given by Frederick E. Brasch in "The Royal Society of London

and its Influence upon Scientific Thought in the American Colonies," T ~ Q

Scielztific Molzthly, XXXIII (0ct.-Nov., 1931), 336-355, 448-469, omits consideration

of the West Indies, and for the continental American colonies it

is inaccurate and incomplete. The list set forth herein is compiled from

original minutes and other manuscript records in the Royal Society Library,

in the survey of which every attempt has been made to be both accurate and

complete. The author wishes to thank the Council of the Royal Society for

its permission to use these manuscripts; to acknowledge the splendid assistance

of the Society's Librarian, Mr. Henry W. Robinson, and of his

Assistant, Mr. J. C. Graddon; and to express appreciation to the Social

Science Research Council of New York City, as Fellow of which (1934-36)

the author collected materials for this paper.

undertaking required collaborators in remote places and in the

first charter of the Society (July 15, 1662) Charles 11, "for the

improvement of the experiments, arts, and sciences of the aforesaid

Royal Society," granted to the President, Council, and

Fellows of the Society, and to their successors, the privilege

. . . to enjoy mutual intelligence and knowledge with all

and all manner of strangers and foreigners, whether private

or collegiate, corporate or politic, without any molestation,

interruption, or disturbance whatsoever : Provided nevertheless,

that this our indulgence, so granted as it is aforesaid,

be not extended to further use than the particular

benefit and interest of the aforesaid Royal Society in matters

or things philosophical, mathematical, or me~hanical.~

It is not surprising, then, to find that one of the newly organized

Royal Society's first cares was to create a committee

"For Corre~pondence,"~o r that, from within a few years after

the Society's incorporation until the era of the Napoleonic Wars

(at least), the secretaries and many individual fellows of the

Royal Society maintained an enormous scientific correspondence

with men of many different capacities and degrees in Europe,

the Levant, the East Indies, and the British colonies in the


Of these correspondents only a small proportion, particularly

of those in the British colonies, were elected fellows of the

Society. Non-British European correspondents, usually eminent

continental scientists, frequently were elected fellows of the

Royal Society on the Foreign List as recognition of their

achievements in experimental science. But comparatively few

colonial correspondents were elected to the ~ o ~saocliet y primarily

because of noteworthy contributions to scientific knowledge.

They were none the less valued, however, for the Royal

Society cherished them as trustworthy purveyors of scientific

2See the translation of the first charter in Tlze Recovd of the Royal

Society of London (hereinafter cited as The Record) (3rd ed., London,

1912), 67-68. The second charter (April 22, 1663) retained practically the

same words as those auoted above.

3 ~ h o k a sB irch, he History of the Royal Society of London . . . (4

vols. London, 1756-57), I, 406-407.


data from little known regions of the world, prized them as

instruments by whose means the Society could spread the gospel

of the new experimental philosophy in the colonies, and, occasionally,

recognized them as scientific investigators whose accomplishments

merited their election to the most highly respected

learned society in the Empire.

The election to the Society on the "Home List7'* of fellows

who inhabited American colonies and who were unable to attend

the regular meetings of the Society created organizational

problems, and the statutes relating to the election of such fellows

were altered from time to time. At the outset, there

appears no special provision for English fellows whose distant

abode made it impossible for them to attend the weekly meetings.

Chapters of the Original Statutes of the Royal Society

(1663) which treated of the election of fellows to the Society

set forth a method whereby candidates were to be proposed by

one or more fellows at a meeting of the Society; balloted for

at a subsequent meeting (provided a quorum was present) ;5

notified of election and of the moral and financial obligations incurred

by membership; required to subscribe to "the obligation,"

which provided that candidates for admission

. . . do hereby pronaise each for himelf, that we will endeavour

to promote the good of the Royal Society of

London for improving natural knowledge, and to pursue

the ends for which the same was founded; that we will'

be present at the Meetings of the Society, as often as conveniently

we can, especially at the Anniversary Elections,

and upon extraordinary occasions; and that we mill observe

the Statutes and Orders of the said Society. Pro-

4 That is, the list of fellows who were subjects of the English Crown

5An exception was made for British subjects "having the title and

place of a Baron, or having any higher title and place, and every one of

his Majesty's Privy, Council of any of the said kingdoms [England, Scotland,

and Ireland], who could be "propounded and put to the vote for

Election, on the same day, there being present a competent number [21] for

making Elections." The Record, 120. At a meeting of the Council, May 13,

1663, it was "Ordered, That the debate concerning those that are to be

received and admitted into the Society, be kept under Secrecy." Council

Minutes (MS in the Royal Society Library, London), I, 2. This and all

other manuscripts in the Royal Society Librqry are cited with the permission

of the Council of the Society.


vided, that whensoever any of us shall signify to the President,

under his hand, that he desireth to withdraw from the

Society, he shall be free frovn this Obligation for the


This done, the candidate agreed to pay weekly contributions of

one shilling each "toward the charges of experiments, and other

expences of the Society"; and, within four weeks after election,

"or within such further time as shall be granted by the Society

or Council, upon cause shewed to either of them," the candidate

was required to appear in person before the Society, to pay an

admission fee of forty shillings, and to be admitted formally

into the Society by the President who, taking each candidate by

the hand, said, "I do by the authority, and in the name of the

Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge, admit

you a Fellow thereof.'j7

Candidates residing outside London, especially colonials,

found it difficult, if not impossible, to comply with these regulations.

To ameliorate their situation, the Council passed (April,

1664) a new statute which provided that:

When any person residing in Forreign parts shall be

elected into the Society, in the due and accustomed forme

and manner; the said person shall be registered among the

Fellows of the Society, and be reputed a Fellow thereof,

-z'tn'thout Subscription and admission in the usual Forvne,

any thing contained in the Statutes requiring Subscription

and Admission to the contrary notwithstanding: And the

said person may have an Instrument under the seal of the

Society testifying him to be elected and reputed a Fellow

of the Society acc~rdingly.~

6 C. R. Weld, A H i s t o ~ y of the Royal Society . . . (2 vols. London,

1848), I, 145-146; The Record, 117. After the form of the Obligation had

been agreed won. the Council added (Tune 17. 1663) : "And if anv Fellow

shall refuse td subscribe the said obligation, he shah be ejected oht of the

Society: And if any person Elected, shall refuse to subscribe the same, the

Election of the said person shall be voyd: Neither shall any person, refusing

to Subscribe. be admitted or Registered among the Fellows of the Societv."

Council Mini., I, 12.

- -

7 The Record, 118, 120.

8 Council Mins., I, 62-64. The italics are mine.


This statute, though designed primarily for foreign members,

was extended to colonial fellows as well9 And in the same

year (1664) was passed another statute which likewise applied

to colonial fellows, foreign members, and others who derived

no direct benefit from experiments performed before the Society,

provided that fellows who resided abroad should pay no

weekly contributions.1° Almost ten years later (October 30,

1673), the Council provided that

. . . such Members of the R. Society as are or shall go

abroad & continue absent from England above three

Months shall not be obliged to pay their weekly Contribution

after those 3 months are expired, but every such Fellow

shall be left at his own Liberty to pay or not after the

said time, until1 he shall be return'd againe unto England.ll

Thus, after April, 1664, a colonial subject of the English Crown

was elected fellow of the Royal Society merely by being pro<

pounded candidate by a fellow at a regular meeting of the

Society and by being chosen by secret ballot at a subsequent

meeting, without subscription to the obligation, payment of fees,

or formal admission.

On August 5, 1682, however, "The Statute for Election of

Fellows having by long Experience been found insufficient for

bringing in persons qualified for the ends of the Institution of

the Royal Society," the Council passed a new statute providing


Every person that would propose a Candidate shall

first give in his name to some of the Councell, that so in

the next Councell it may be discoursed vivci vo~ce whether

the person is known to be so qualified as in probability to

9 The first draft of the statute ran: " . . . any person residing in remote

or Forreign parts . . . " indicating, perhaps that the Council intended, as the

practice was until 1753, to exempt colonial fellows from the necessity of

appearing in London for subscription and admission. Ibid,, I, 62.

10 The Record, 164. Difficulties in the collection of fees from fellows on

the Home List led the Society, before 1674, to require of all candidates a

"Bond for payment of the contribution." Later, as will be noted below, a

bond was required of colonials too. Ibid., 160, 173.

11 Council Mins., I, 219-220.

be useful1 to the Society. And if the Councell return no

other Answer but that they desire further time to be acquainted

with the gentleman proposed, the Proposer is to

take that for an Answer. And if they are well assured that

the Candidate may be useful1 to the Society then the

Candidate shall be proposed at the next meeting of the

Society and ballotted according to the Statute in that behalf,

and shall immediately sign the usual Bond12 and pay

his admission money upon his Adrnission.13

Thereafter, all candidates proposed were referred first to the

Council which, if it approved, recommended them back to the

Society which then balloted for and elected them according to

the former statutes; but other regulations applying to English

candidates who resided abroad or in the colonies remained unchanged,

and such candidates were still exempted from subscription,

payment of fees, and formal admission.

Although alterations occurred in the statutes relating to admission

of fellows, these exemptions in favor of colonial fellows

existed until 1753. Indeed, as the number of colonial fellows

increased a more precise statement of their exemptions and of

their exact status in the Society appeared in the statutes. Jarred,

perhaps, by the misunderstandings which arose about the election

of Cotton Mather to the Society,14 the Council drafted

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