Royal Society of New South Wales

Cite this

Royal Society of New South Wales

The Royal Society of New South Wales is a learned society whose function is to promote science in all its aspects, and to provide a link between the disciplines of science and other branches of knowledge.


Scientific activity in New South Wales started when James Cook and Joseph Banks voyaged along the eastern coast in 1770 at the peak of the Age of Reason, when traditional knowledge handed down from antiquity and the Bible was being challenged. Of course, long before this, Aboriginal people had learned how to interpret their environment and maximise this knowledge for their own advantage. When the penal settlement at Sydney Cove was established in 1788, an interest in natural history was a fashionable pursuit for educated men, who collected and classified the animal, vegetable and mineral constituents of their unfamiliar environment. Even some of the convicts found a profitable sideline collecting shells, birds, plants, and Aboriginal artefacts for sale to visiting ships' captains, who in turn sold them for high prices to wealthy collectors in Europe.

Colonial governors encouraged their surveyors, surgeons, military officers and clergymen to explore the surroundings, because officials and settlers needed to know which resources could sustain the population, and which might be exported profitably. Underlying these practical considerations was the need to assert British claims to the land at a time when well-equipped French and Spanish scientific expeditions were also exploring the region.

The Philosophical Society of Australasia

In June 1821, towards the end of Lachlan Macquarie's term as governor, seven men formed the grandly named Philosophical Society of Australasia

with a view to inquiring into the various branches of physical science of this vast continent and its adjacent regions. [1]

The group met once a week at members' homes in rotation to discuss their discoveries, and to exchange books from their personal libraries. The society asserted its exclusive status and serious purpose by penalising members the substantial sum of £10 if they failed to present a scientific paper on the allotted date.

With the arrival of Sir Thomas Brisbane as the new governor in December 1821, the Philosophical Society seemed assured of a bright future. Brisbane was an astronomer of note, who brought two astronomical assistants with him at his own expense, and established an observatory at Government House in Parramatta, where he resided. He immediately became president of the society and took an active part in its activities, presenting papers and hosting meetings at Government House when his turn came. His involvement ensured that other members were soon recruited. Frederick Goulburn, the first Colonial Secretary, was a member, but when disagreements emerged between Brisbane and Goulburn over the administration of the colony, their conflict led to factions arising within the society.

Without any formal resolution to disband, the Philosophical Society of Australasia held its last recorded meeting on 14 August 1822, although it may have survived a little longer. Its only permanent memorial was a plaque attached to the south head of Botany Bay, marking the arrival of Cook and Banks at that spot in 1770 'under the auspices of British Science'.

Eleven of the remaining 14 members then joined the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, formed a month earlier with Governor Brisbane as patron. Its primary objective was to increase the quality and numbers of profitable animals in the colony, which reflected a major interest of the former Philosophical Society members, most of whom were farming land grants on the Cumberland Plain. As with so many early educational and cultural groups in the colony, the Agricultural Society soon disbanded, although it was later revived to become a forebear of the present Royal Agricultural Society.

The Australian Philosophical Society

Organised scientific activity had been moribund for nearly 30 years when in June 1850 two members of the defunct Philosophical Society, medical practitioner Henry Grattan Douglass and merchant Alexander Berry, helped to form The Australian Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Science, Commerce, and Agriculture, commonly known as 'The Australian Society'. Dr Douglass became joint honorary secretary, and always referred to it as the Australian Philosophical Society to emphasise its rather tenuous connection with the original Philosophical Society of Australasia. Regrettably, no minutes or other documents of this society survive, so we must rely on press reports or incidental correspondence to reconstruct its accomplishments. Sixty people attended the inaugural meeting, so it evidently filled a need, though the attraction may have been commercial rather than scientific, as shown when several men observed that good cedar trees were no longer found within hundreds of miles of Sydney. Only about half of those present appear to have actually joined the society.

The Philosophical Society of New South Wales

It was not a propitious time to form a new association. With the announcement in 1851 that gold had been discovered in the Bathurst region, interests shifted elsewhere. The Australian Society appears to have struggled for five years until several of the scientifically oriented members decided to revive it as the Philosophical Society of New South Wales. Prominent among these was Reverend WB Clarke, described by historian Manning Clark as 'on weekdays a geologist and on Sundays a man of God'. [2] The ubiquitous Dr Douglass and Alexander Berry were involved once again, but after 10 years the resuscitated society in turn languished, prompting discussion about possible strategies to develop a lasting and effective organisation to promote science.

The Royal Society

Eventually the model of the Royal Society of London was favoured. That institution had been founded in 1660 after the Restoration of Charles II, and became probably the most prestigious scientific association in the world. Other than the award of a Nobel Prize, election as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) is one of the most coveted honours among the international scientific community today. In earlier times, while valued, it was much easier to be elected.

Already two of the Australian colonies – Victoria and Van Diemen's Land – had created local Royal Societies from the remnants of previous philosophical societies. Following considerable lobbying, Queen Victoria gave her Royal Assent in December 1866 for the Philosophical Society of New South Wales to be known as The Royal Society of New South Wales. To ensure its legal status, the society was formally incorporated by a special Act of the New South Wales Parliament in 1881 'for the encouragement of studies and investigations in Science, Art, Literature and Philosophy'. [3]

Under the influence of presidents and secretaries such as WB Clarke, Professors John Smith and Archibald Liversidge, Government Astronomer HC Russell and geologist Sir TW Edgeworth David, the Royal Society displayed a strong emphasis on the physical sciences in its discussions, particularly geology, palaeontology and mineralogy. People whose primary interests were in the life sciences of botany, biology and zoology formed the Linnean Society of New South Wales in 1874 under the guidance of Sir William Macleay. Nevertheless, many people were members of both societies, because nineteenth-century science did not follow the rigid demarcation lines we know today, while the two societies themselves maintained a close relationship for many years.

Unlike its counterpart in Victoria, which encouraged Antarctic exploration and backed the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, the Royal Society of New South Wales did not engage directly in scientific research or exploration. Instead, it preferred to foster independent local discovery through liaison with other organisations and by its program of meetings, symposia and publications dedicated to the furthering of knowledge. Among the notable work of its members is the pioneering aeronautical research conducted by Lawrence Hargrave, first published in the society's Journal and Proceedings. [4]

The Royal Society of New South Wales in the nineteenth century was never the mere provincial intellectual outpost that many commentators have assumed. Members kept up to date with the latest scientific discoveries published in the English, American and European journals despite the inevitable delay of up to six months before they arrived in the colony. Some members travelled overseas for conferences or exhibitions. They engaged in vigorous discourse on many of the most contentious issues of the period, including correspondence with Charles Darwin (who was an honorary member) about his theories of species evolution at a time when such views were deeply unpopular in Australia. Other members were early proponents of the concepts of continental drift and plate tectonics when most of the international geological establishment ridiculed such notions.


Initially the Royal Society met in rooms rented for the occasion. The society only began making a significant impact on Sydney cultural life after 1875 when it leased Clark's Assembly Rooms at 5 Elizabeth Street, a property it later purchased and called the (Royal) Society's House. It housed the secretary's office, the library, an exhibition area for scientific specimens, and meeting rooms. In addition to the society's own functions, the Senate of the University of Sydney held its monthly meetings there until the late 1880s. It became a popular venue for meetings of many small associations, with diverse interests ranging from the Shakespeare Society to the Australian Massage Association.

In the late 1920s, as part of the policy to maintain links between scientific organisations, the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the Institution of Engineers Australia formed a consortium to erect and manage a new building on land provided by the State government on the corner of Gloucester and Essex streets. Designed by architects Peddle, Thorpe and Walker in a vaguely Florentine style, Science House won the inaugural Sulman Award for Architectural Merit in 1932.

The partnership worked harmoniously until 1976 when a complete redevelopment of The Rocks area was planned and the government resumed Science House. Using the compensation payout, the Royal Society and the Linnean Society formed a company to acquire a commercial building at 35 Clarence Street, which after refurbishment was named The Science Centre. That venture became financially unsustainable during an economic downturn in 1983, forcing the Royal Society to move to vacant cottages at Macquarie University for several years, before moving to its present terrace house in Darlington, owned by the University of Sydney. As it happens, The Rocks redevelopment scheme was thwarted by Green Bans, so the original building with its fine Art Deco interior remains unoccupied, although for a period it served as a home for sporting groups, after being inappropriately re-named Sports House. Later it became a coaching college and an adjunct of an interstate university.

The Royal Society also has a presence outside Sydney, because from time to time enthusiastic local members have conducted regional branches of the society in rural centres such as Armidale, Orange, and the Southern Highlands.


Initially the Royal Society of New South Wales functioned like an exclusive gentlemen's club. Membership was strictly controlled, limited to a maximum of 500 (never quite achieved, but reaching 494 in 1884–85). The only qualification was that they should be men of 'honourable reputations and … a friend of science'. [5] Candidates were nominated and seconded by existing members or prominent citizens, and each nomination was placed on the table for three consecutive meetings to allow objections to be raised, before members finally voted on whether or not to accept the candidate. Members generally were recruited from the professional and business classes, together with clergymen and leading politicians. Over time that selectiveness gradually disappeared to reflect a more egalitarian community. Membership is now open to any person interested in the scientific ideals of the Royal Society.

Despite the irony in the fact that Queen Victoria gave her assent to the name, women were not admitted to membership of the Royal Society of New South Wales until 1935, despite having achieved the electoral franchise in 1902. The first woman to be elected president was palaeontologist Dr Ida Brown in 1953. During the nineteenth century some enlightened members proposed that women should be permitted to join, pointing out that 'ladies are neither uninterested nor inappreciative of science', [6] but these moves were overwhelmingly defeated by the paternalistic majority. Women were not even invited to attend the monthly scientific meetings, although occasionally papers written by female science graduates were read by male colleagues on their behalf.


The one activity where women were welcome was the annual Conversazione. Such social gatherings in a cultural setting were a feature of nineteenth-century life throughout the British empire. The Philosophical Society of New South Wales held one in 1859 to demonstrate the relatively new art of photography, but from 1874 they became an annual event for the Royal Society, capitalising on the huge interest in science and technology generated by the 1870 Intercolonial Exhibition in Sydney. Originally held in the Masonic Hall in York Street, these Conversaziones moved to Sydney University after the Great Hall was completed in 1859. Exhibits of scientific equipment and the latest inventions lined the walls, while practical demonstrations took place in University lecture theatres or laboratories. Up to 1,000 men and women in evening dress promenaded around the illuminated buildings, consuming suitable refreshments to the accompaniment of light classics played on the organ. Members' wives and older daughters proudly displayed their finery – often the latest French fashions. Until World War I, this was one of the most important events in Sydney's social calendar, reported in detail in the newspapers.

From 1867, the Royal Society of New South Wales commenced publishing annual Transactions, containing the texts of original papers presented at the monthly general meetings of members. Unsurprisingly in a developing colony, the early contributions were in fields of applied science such as railway engineering or water supply. In 1876 this publication became the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales , a refereed journal which has appeared without interruption since then. This journal is exchanged with more than 400 scientific institutions throughout the world. Because of space constraints at the society's library, the journals received in exchange are deposited in a special collection at the Dixson Library of the University of New England. Some of these publications are the only copies in Australia. The Royal Society also publishes occasional monographs, including Imperial Science Under the Southern Cross (2009), a biography of former president and secretary Archibald Liversidge FRS by Professor Roy Macleod.

The society's move into permanent premises in 1875 enabled it to establish a scientific lending library. This library contained over 40,000 volumes by 1960. However, in 1983 when the society relinquished the Science Centre in Clarence Street, it was forced to disperse a large part of the collection across several other locations and to dispense with the services of a professional librarian. The core of the Royal Society collection, including rare books dating from the sixteenth century, may still be used for research at the society offices at Darlington. The extensive archives of the Royal Society are kept at the Mitchell Library, but are not open for public access.

In 1876, having settled into its new home, the Royal Society launched its Scientific Sections. These were groups of members with a specialised interest who met monthly to discuss the latest developments in their sub-discipline, whether this be agriculture, architecture, astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, ethnology, fine arts, geography, geology, literature, mathematics, medicine, microscopy, physics or public health. Gradually separate societies or professional associations in their particular fields replaced those Sections. Indeed, one of the great contributions of the Royal Society of New South Wales to Australian science was its function as progenitor and mentor for a host of other associations, such as the Institution of Engineers Australia and the British Medical Association, NSW Branch. Professor Liversidge as president devoted himself to the creation of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in time for the centenary celebrations of 1888.

The Royal Society began a series of regular science lectures in 1900. They were initially restricted to members but soon welcomed everybody. According to press reports, these 'Popular Science Lectures' were well attended, with men and women sometimes turned away due to lack of room. After a few years this effort to bring scientific knowledge before a wider audience lapsed, partly due to preoccupation with other events such as World War I and the influenza pandemic which hit Sydney in 1919–20. It was not until the 1960s that this activity was revived, although by then the idea of a public lecture series was beginning to appear outdated in the face of other means of mass communication. Nevertheless, the long tradition of monthly scientific lectures continues. These are held in conjunction with a business meeting, so mostly are aimed at members, but are open to anyone. These lecture/meetings have been numbered consecutively since their inception, and by 2010 had reached the grand total of 1,480, most of which have been subsequently published in the Journal and Proceedings.

From 1971, the Royal Society conducted annual courses for senior secondary school students during the summer vacation. With corporate sponsorship, these Summer Schools allowed leaders in different fields of science to explain and demonstrate the latest research. An important objective was to create enthusiasm for science amongst young people. The success of the Summer Schools over 30 years became a model for similar projects later organised by other scientific bodies.

Awards and honours

One of the society's notable contributions to the promotion of excellence in Australian science is the recognition it gives scientists by the award of medals and prizes. The Clarke Medal for distinguished work in the natural sciences has been awarded annually since 1878. Other awards include the Edgeworth David Medal for distinguished contributions by a scientist under the age of 35, and the James Cook Medal for outstanding contributions to science and human welfare. Leading researchers are also invited to present occasional lectures in their particular field, named in honour of past scholars.

Like most voluntary associations, the Royal Society publishes a regular newsletter or Bulletin for members. It also has a formal annual dinner, frequently with a vice-regal guest of honour. Both the governor-general and the state governor are patrons of the society; every governor since Sir Charles FitzRoy in 1850 has been either president or patron, and some have been active members as well. In 2010, Quentin Bryce, the Governor-General of Australia, conferred a new honour on seven distinguished Australian scientists who became Fellows of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

In the twenty-first century, the Royal Society's primary function is advocacy on behalf of the various scientific disciplines. In doing so, it aims to demonstrate to the wider community the benefits that flow from scientific research, to broaden public understanding of scientific aims and methodology, and to encourage wider participation in scientific endeavour.


Minutes, Philosophical Society of Australasia, 1821-2; Philosophical Society of New South Wales, 1856-1867; Royal Society of New South Wales, 1867–1909, held at State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library

Annual Reports, published in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1876–2009

DF Branagan, 'Words, actions, people: 150 years of the scientific societies in Australia', Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 104, 1972, pp 123–141

AP Elkin, 'The Challenge TO science, 1866; the challenge OF science, 1966', in A Century of Scientific Progress, Royal Society of NSW, 1968

JH Maiden, 'A contribution to a history of the Royal Society of New South Wales,'Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales¸ vol LII, 1918, pp 215–361

Royal Society of NSW website,, viewed 22 June 2010

PJ Tyler, 'The Royal Society of New South Wales. Report on historical significance', Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 139, December 2006, pp 75–100


[1] Philosophical Society of Australasia, Minutes, 26 September 1821

[2] CMH Clark, A History of Australia, vol IV, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1978, p 7

[3] Parliament of New South Wales, Royal Society of New South Wales Incorporation Act, 1881

[4] See 21 articles published in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol XVIII, 1884 and subsequent issues until 1909

[5] Royal Society of NSW, Certificates of Candidates for Election, 1889, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library MSS 1265/71, Archive box 37

[6] Government Astronomer George Smalley, Vice-presidential address to annual general meeting, Transactions of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1868, p 9