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Figure 1. Sir Christopher Wren, by Johann Closterman. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 2. King Charles II, by Sir Peter Lely. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 3. Title page of volume I of Philosophical Transactions, 1665. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 4. Sir Isaac Newton. Engraving from a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

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Figure 5. Reflecting telescope made by Isaac Newton, 1671. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 6. Title page of Principia by Sir Isaac Newton, 1671. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 7. Manuscript of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, 1685. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 8. Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Wright, 1782. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Society.

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Figure 9. Jan Evangelista Purkyne, by Petr Maixner.

Hooke R. Micrographia, or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses, With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. London, England: Martyn & Allestry; 1665
Andrade EN da C. A Brief History of the Royal Society, 1660-1960. London, England: Royal Society; 1960:7
Keeler CR. Babbage the unfortunate.  Br J Ophthalmol. 2004;88(6):730-732PubMedArticle
Whewell W. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Vol 2. London, England: Parker; 1840:560
Citations 0
Special Article
Oct 2011

Three Hundred Fifty Years of the Royal SocietyFellows of Vision

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists, London, England.

Arch Ophthalmol. 2011;129(10):1361-1365. doi:10.1001/archophthalmol.2011.222

The 350th anniversary of the Royal Society was celebrated in November 2010. This British society is the oldest scientific institution in the world, with 8200 fellows, including foreign members, having been elected during this period. Sir Isaac Newton is just one of the world's great scientists who have served as officers of the Royal Society. Today there are 69 Nobel Laureates among the membership of 1400.


In the middle of the 17th century, civil war was raging in England. King Charles I had commandeered Oxford and set up a royalist coterie within the colleges. Among his medical advisers were his physician Dr William Harvey (1578-1657), Dr Thomas Willis (1621-1675), and Dr Charles Scarburgh (1614-1694). In time of war, good doctors and surgeons were highly valued.

In 1646, a sick 14-year-old boy named Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was sent by his father to be under the care of Scarburgh at his home in Oxford. Soon, Wren became the technical assistant and informal apprentice to Scarburgh.

Together they explored Harvey's work on the functioning of the body as an organ. Every Thursday, Wren attended lectures at Surgeons' Hall. By the age of 16 years, he had become a builder of machines and models, including one of the human eye for his master.

In 1649, he went to Wadham College, one of the university colleges; he took his master's degree 2 years later. It was during this time that he grew close to Willis, known today as the founder of neurology. It was later in 1663 that Wren, who was now an accomplished draftsman, became involved in making many of the meticulous drawings for Willis's famous book, Cerebri Anatome. Wren was an extraordinary polymath in an era of many polymaths and is most famous today as an architect and the creator of St Paul's Cathedral (Figure 1).

In 1657, Wren had moved to the comparative safety of London and had become professor of astronomy at age 25 years at Gresham College. He was one of 7 professors, each specializing in a subject: astronomy, geometry, physics, law, divinity, rhetoric, and music.

On November 28, 1660, after giving one of his weekly lectures, 12 men who had been attending the lecture met to discuss the possibility of setting up a new institution, a society for promoting physicomathematical experimental learning.

This was to become the Royal Society, which just celebrated its 350th anniversary. The new philosophy was to experiment, inquire, and interrogate nature by observation, not by theory. Their inspiration came from Sir Francis Bacon, who dreamed of science operating in the way of a collaboration, or a fellowship, hence the adoption of the word fellow.

The founding members decided on the more informal European Academy and debating type of organization rather than an institution for their new society. English would be the primary language, not Latin. On November 28, 1660, 40 prominent people were proposed.

Wren became a major influence in gaining royal approval when he showed Charles II (Figure 2) his greatly magnified image of a louse. The king was even more impressed by a lunar globe, which Wren had created out of pasteboard, showing the moon's surface in incredible detail. He presented a new version of this as a gift to the king in person.

The Royal Society was granted its first charter in July 1662, followed by the second in 1663. This second charter declared the king as the founder and patron and from henceforth the group could call themselves The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, to give it its full title. The coat of arms had as its motto “Nullius in Verba”—take no man's word for it.

This new organization, under the patronage of the ruling monarch, has become the world's oldest scientific society, with its continuous existence for more than 350 years.

In 1662, Robert Hooke was appointed curator. His brief was “to furnish [the Society] every day on which they met, with three or four considerable experiments, and expecting no recompence till the society should get a stock enabling them to give it.”

From the very beginning, the Royal Society was considered a place for experimentation. The weekly meeting, where members could bring their demonstrations to educate and entertain, was not entirely successful as too many of the members just expected to be entertained. Hooke was himself one of the most active experimenters, bringing to the Royal Society the first effective compound microscope, the first iris diaphragm, and a range of new meteorological instruments. In his 1665 book Micrographia, Hooke stated

By means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our enquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.1

At the instigation of the first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, in 1665 the Philosophical Transactions Giving Some Account of the Present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World, or simply Philosophical Transactions (Figure 3), started to be published. It remains the world's longest such publication. Many letters were printed in it, and it was a way of communicating what fellows were doing. It was not until 1831 that peer review of the articles was instigated.

In addition to Wren, Scarburgh, and Willis, the founding fellows included the Dutch astronomer, mathematician, and optician Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691), referred to by foreigners as “the English Philosopher.” This prolific experimenter had already established Boyle's law. His list of 24 wishes that he hoped science would achieve in the future to make life better for people makes fascinating reading. Included in the list are “the art of flying” and “the making of parabolic and hyperbolic glasses.”

From its commencement, the Royal Society has been international in outlook, including having a foreign secretary 100 years before the British government. Foreigners became members of the Royal Society, not fellows, and membership was not always selected from the well born. For instance, in the 1670s, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1623-1723) was a simple Dutch shopkeeper turned microscopist who went on to describe microorganisms for the first time. Of ophthalmic interest was his discovery of the layer of rods of the retina, the fibrous structure of the lens, and the fibroepithelial layer of the cornea. All of his discoveries, reported in 200 articles in low Dutch between 1673 and 1724, were published in Philosophical Transactions.


The names of some notable people elected fellows in the first 20-year period stand out, such as William Penn and Samuel Pepys, but probably the greatest of all fellows in the Royal Society's long history has been Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) (Figure 4). He was elected a fellow in 1671 at the age of 28 years, having presented to the Royal Society 2 years earlier a 6-inch-long reflecting telescope he had made with his own hands (Figure 5). In 1687, after just 18 months from when he embarked on it, he completed what many regard as the most important scientific work ever published, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Figure 6), known simply as Principia (Figure 7). Despite a shortage of funds, the Royal Society undertook its publication. Pepys was the president at the time and put his imprimatur on the title page, although he probably did not understand a word of the book's contents.

The Royal Society started a library in 1661 with the understanding that fellows would donate a copy of any book they had published. Among the many writers over the decades was Charles Darwin, who complied and presented a signed copy of his Origin of the Species.

Today there are 50 antiquarian books on ophthalmology in the library. As a result of the fame that Principia established for Newton, he became president of the Royal Society in 1703, a position he held until his death in 1727. He attended nearly every meeting and the Royal Society rose rapidly under his reputation. His industry was legendary, so much so that the Marquis d’Hopital, a distinguished mathematician himself, asked whether Newton ate, drank, or slept like an ordinary man, “for I picture him to myself as a celestial genius.”2 Newton was the first scientist to be knighted and became a hero of science. A poem by Alexander Pope sums this up: “nature and nature's law lay hid in night; God said ‘let Newton be’ and all was light.”

In the 18th century, one or two fellows' names appear whose profession was that of surgeon but who were significantly involved in ophthalmology. William Cheselden was elected a fellow in 1711. He was a brilliant surgeon and anatomist. His claim to fame in ophthalmology was as the inventor of the artificial pupil. The Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave, elected in 1730, was considered by some to be the father of practical ophthalmology in the 18th century. The American physician William Charles Wells, elected in 1793, came to St Thomas' Hospital in London and made his name in the physiology of vision.

Two other Englishmen, in the case of the second a British subject, were also elected fellows. They were Elihu Yale (elected in 1717), who became benefactor of Yale University, and Benjamin Franklin (elected in 1756), the well-known inventor of the bifocal lens for spectacle wearers (Figure 8). His work on electricity by flying a kite in a thunderstorm won him the Copley Medal in 1753 “on account of his curious experiment and observation on electricity.” He became one of the Royal Society's most famous natural philosophers, and such was his range of talent that he helped in drafting the Declaration of Independence in America. His membership in the Royal Society remained in effect even after his actions as a revolutionary in the American War of Independence, much the same as Max Planck, the German physicist, was left in position as a member during World War II.

In the latter half of the 18th century, the Royal Society elected as fellows more great names in optics and medicine. These included John Dollond (elected in 1761; inventor of the achromatic lens, which Newton had stated was impossible), Joseph Priestley (elected in 1766), John and William Hunter (elected in 1767), Jesse Ramsden (elected in 1786), William Wollaston (elected in 1793), and, lastly, one of the geniuses of his generation, Thomas Young (1773-1829; elected in 1794).Young's contribution to ophthalmology was significant: he established that the seat of accommodation was in the lens, and he did pioneering work on astigmatism and color. Being multilingual, Young was an ideal choice as the Royal Society's foreign secretary, a position he held for 26 years.

After Newton's death, Sir Joseph Banks took over as president, a position he held for 41 years until his death. Banks held a “conversation” every Sunday evening at his home, during which objects of scientific interest were exhibited by the host and his guests. This is the origin of conversaziones held today.


The 19th century saw fellowships being conferred to numerous ophthalmologists and doctors closely associated with ophthalmology. These included Sir Astley Cooper (elected in 1802), Sir William Lawrence (elected in 1813), George Guthrie (elected in 1827), and Sir William Bowman (elected in 1841).

One of the few Czech individuals to be elected a member of the Royal Society was physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyne (1787-1869; elected in 1850) (Figure 9). By delicious irony, this was the same year Hermann von Helmholtz discovered his augen-spiegels, or ophthalmoscope as it came to be called, unaware that Purkyne had described in detail how he had visualized the fundi of animals and humans 27 years earlier. He had published his opera omnia in Latin and it had remained largely unread. Helmholtz himself was made a member of the Royal Society in 1860 and won the prestigious Copley Medal in 1873.

At the end of the century, 2 doctors closely connected to ophthalmology were elected as fellows. One was the German individual Rudolf Virchow, who was most widely known for his cell theory. Two centuries earlier, another fellow, Robert Hooke, described in his famous book Micrographia —the first illustrated book of microscopic observations—how a sliver of cork consisted of a “great many little boxes” or cells when viewed through a microscope. The other fellow was Sir William Gowers, a British neurologist whose A Manual and Atlas of Medical Ophthalmoscopy was required reading by students of ophthalmology and went into many editions, including a German translation.

On Humphrey Davy's succession to the presidency in 1820, although the majority of the 641 fellows were practicing men of science, a large number had little interest in the subject. Discontent in the functioning and composition of the Royal Society at this time was highlighted by several other books, among them one by mathematician Charles Babbage (elected in 1816) called Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes (1830). Babbage's fame is based on his work on the Difference Engine, the so-called first computer, but for ophthalmology his fame could so easily have been immortal as the inventor of the ophthalmoscope in 1847.3

A revision of the Royal Society's statutes was undertaken in 1847. The number elected each year was to be reduced to 15 from unlimited. Six fellows had to propose new members, and instead of a posted notice in the meeting room for 10 weeks, a printed list of candidates was prepared for election by fellows to whom council recommended the names.

The Victorian period was remarkable for the level of amateur astronomy. The Herschel family made a significant contribution to this. John Herschel (elected in 1813) fought for the presidency of the Royal Society but narrowly lost.

The Victorian scientists specializing in optics and color were well represented, with names such as David Brewster (elected in 1814), Augustus Fresnel (elected in 1825), George Airy (elected in 1836), Charles Wheatstone (elected in 1836), and William Whewell (elected in 1848). In 1840, Whewell wrote, “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.”4 This was the first time the natural philosopher was to be called a scientist. Whewell also invented the term astigmatism.


Into the 20th century, 3 American individuals and 1 Canadian individual who contributed directly or indirectly to ophthalmology stand out. Silas Weir Mitchell (elected in 1908) did much to explain eyestrain or asthenopia and emphasized the need for proper glasses. Sir Henry Wellcome (elected in 1932), whose world-renowned Wellcome Trust was established through his will in 1936, the incomparable neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, and the physician and teacher Sir William Osler were all outstanding leaders in their professions.

Five well-known ophthalmologists, including “honorary ophthalmologist” Norman Ashton (elected in 1971), were elected as fellows in the 20th century. Edward Nettleship was elected in 1912, Sir John Herbert Parsons was elected in 1921, Sir Stewart Duke-Elder was elected in 1960, and Sir Harold Ridley was elected in 1986.

Each year, 760 candidates are put forward by the 10 selection committees to the council for election. Of these, 45 are elected as fellows and a further 8 are elected as foreign members. Today there are 1400 fellows, of whom 69 are Nobel Laureates. In the 350-year history of the Royal Society, there have been 8200 fellows. In this total, there is only a small number of female fellows owing to the fact that their election only commenced in 1945.

The Royal Society, residing at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, is a remarkable institution. Although it receives an annual parliamentary grant of £50 million, it is independent of government, unlike its counterparts the French Academy and the much larger American National Academy of Sciences. It is very much alive and in tune with international scientific advances. It sponsors 350 research fellowships and gives grants to 3000 scientists. It awards numerous medals and prizes each year. There are no fewer than 96 committees that meet regularly, and there is a busy schedule of lectures and debates. The Royal Society publishes a stream of articles in its 7 journals. The highlight of the summer is the annual scientific exhibition, open to the public, which shows the latest research by fellows.

As one reviews the long history of the Royal Society, the thrill of discovery and the sharing of it by its fellows permeates every phase of its existence and continues to do so today.

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Article Information

Correspondence: C. Richard Keeler, FRCOphth(Hon), 1 Brookfield Park, London NW5 1ES, England (

Submitted for Publication: September 1, 2010; final revision received October 27, 2010; accepted November 7, 2010.

Financial Disclosure: None reported.

Hooke R. Micrographia, or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses, With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. London, England: Martyn & Allestry; 1665
Andrade EN da C. A Brief History of the Royal Society, 1660-1960. London, England: Royal Society; 1960:7
Keeler CR. Babbage the unfortunate.  Br J Ophthalmol. 2004;88(6):730-732PubMedArticle
Whewell W. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Vol 2. London, England: Parker; 1840:560