The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VIII. The Literature of Science

§ 26. The Royal Society

Although science, during the eighteenth century, was, like many other intellectual activities in our country, more or less in abeyance, an attempt has been made, in the following pages, to carry on the subject in the present chapter from that which appeared in a previous volume (VIII) of this History.

“The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,” one of the oldest scientific societies in the world and certainly the oldest in the empire, was formally founded in 1660, and received its royal charter of incorporation two years later. At a preliminary meeting, a list had been prepared of some forty “names of such persons as were known to those present whom they judged willing and fit to joyne … in the designe,” and among these names we find those of “Mr. Robert Boyle, Sir Kenelme Digby, Mr. Evelyn, Dr. Ward, Dr. Wallis, Dr. Glisson, Dr. Ent, Dr. Cowley, Dr. Willis, Dr. Wren,” names whose owners have been dwelt upon in Volume VIII.

Thus, for the first time in our country, the study of science was, to a degree, organised and its advancement promoted, not only by periodical meetings where experiments were conducted and criticism freely offered, but by the collection of scientific books, which still remain at Burlington house, and of “natural objects,” which have for long formed part of the British Museum collections.

  • So Virtuous and so Noble a Design,
  • So Human for its Use, for Knowledge so Divine,
  • as Abraham Cowley, the laureate of the new movement, wrote, was, in part, a protest against the credulity and superstitions of a credulous and superstitious age, and the word “natural,” as used in the charter, was used in deliberate opposition to “supernatural,” the aim of the society being, at any rate in part, to discourage divination and witchcraft.

    We have said something about the brilliant band of physiologists, headed by Harvey, who made the Stewart period remarkable in the annals of English science; though there were then other biologists less gifted than Harvey, but still leaders in their several fields. The recent invention of the microscope had given a great impetus to the study of the anatomical structure of plants and, later, of animals; and, in relation to this, we must not overlook the work of Nehemiah Grew, who, with the Italian Malpighi, may be considered a co-founder of the science of plant-anatomy.