Founding the Royal Society

Date Published: 13.12.2021

Wadham's sixth Warden, Revd Dr John Wilkins , was an advocate of the new ‘experimental’ approach to science. His informal Philosophical Club became the Royal Society

Wilkins and the Royal Society

Alumnus Melvyn Bragg (1958, History) describes Wadham, Oxford in the 1650s as “a melting pot of modern science.” According to historian Allan Chapman (1972, DPhil History of Science) in the Wadham College History, in the university world of 1650 most of his Wilkins’s interests would have been considered “fringe at best and downright eccentric at worst.”

But Wilkins brought unprecedented intellectual energy to Wadham. “Any man who could accompany his induction in the politically sensitive Wardenship of Wadham with the publication of a book dealing with projected designs for submarines, flying machines and perpetual motion devices, as he did with Mathematical magick (1648), lacked neither courage nor confidence. His first book, when he was 24 years old, argued in favour of the feasibility of a voyage to the moon and a defence of Copernican astronomy.”

During the dozen years of Wilkins’s Wardenship, Wadham became a European scientific hub. Wadham College became the regular meeting place for the nucleus of experimenters who after 1660 became the Royal Society.

The informal ‘Philosophical Club’ of astronomers, anatomists, and chemists which regularly met at the Lodgings as friends of the Warden became England’s first real body to pursue systematic experimental research. Their ideas were original and deeply challenging to the traditional philosophy of ‘the Schools’ of ancient learning.

Club members included Seth Ward, Thomas Willis and Robert Boyle, who employed as his assistant the young Robert Hooke who later recorded having experimented with flying machines in the Warden’s garden. Hooke, whose subsequent scientific career was strongly moulded by Wilkins, mentions several Wadham recollections in his writings. His book Micrographia (1665) used the newly invented microscope to study the wing structures of a variety of flying insects. At this time the young John Locke was involved in chemical projects in Wadham. Christopher Wren, who had distinguished himself as an astronomer and physicist had left Wadham to become a Fellow of All Souls in 1653, but continued to attend the Wadham meetings as a friend of the Warden.

Wilkins’s influence as an inspirer of scientific ideas even extended to the College staff. The College Manciple (a steward responsible for food purchasing), Christopher Brooks, was a skilled instrument maker and the inventor of a new quadrant. Wilkins also recruited a former chef to the Prince of Wales as cook, allegedly for his expertise in botany.

Chapman comments: “Wadham’s gardens were notable for their collection of mechanical contrivances, including a talking statue, a rainbow-maker, and glass beehives used to study the bee colony.” It was almost certainly in the garden at Wadham that the experiment which used a syringe to administer an opiate to Sir Christopher Wren's dog was performed in 1656 to see if the blood circulated, and could therefore get the drug to the brain faster that giving it orally – possibly the first scientifically conducted experiment using an intravenously administered drug.   

Chapman adds that: “Wilkins was a pioneer of the use of the English language as a vehicle for carrying the ‘new science’ beyond the scholarly community and had a visionary sense of how technology might change the world.”

Notable Wadham scientists

Since Wilkins’s day, Wadham has seen a number of notable scientists pass through its doors including Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell (Physics), Churchill's principal scientific adviser in the Second World War; Charles Coulson (Professor of Maths and founder of Theoretical Chemistry); Allen Hill (alumnus and Honorary Fellow), chemistry; Nevil Storey-Maskelyne (Professor of Mineralogy, 1856-95); Robert Clifton, alumnus, professor (1865-1915), effectively creator of Clarendon Laboratory; Reginald Victor Jones, alumnus, Honorary Fellow and leading physicist who became a scientific and military expert involved in the establishment of radar during the Second World War;  Botanist David Smith, Honorary Fellow and former Royal Society Research Fellow; Robert Williams, Emeritus Fellow, chemist, Fellow of the Royal Society; Professor David Macdonald CBE DSc FRSE (1969 Zoology), Director of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU); Mathematician, Emeritus Fellow and Nobel Laureate, Sir Roger Penrose OM; Professor Anthony Cheetham, (1965, Chemistry DPhil), Goldsmiths Professor of Materials at Cambridge, and Treasurer and Vice-President of the Royal Society; and Professor Marcus du Sautoy (1983, Mathematics), Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

Science at Wadham today

Some 45% of Wadham’s undergraduate intake is for science courses (including Biochemistry, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Engineering, Medicine, Maths, Psychology and Human Sciences). However natural scientists make up closer to 50% of the total undergraduate body, as the majority of scientists are on four-year degree programmes while most Humanities and Social Sciences students follow three-year courses.

Approximately 40% of our post-graduate intake study for courses offered by Oxford University’s Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences Division or Medical Sciences Division. Given that the proportion of graduate students studying multiple-year doctorates is higher in the sciences than in other fields, this means that around 55% of our graduate body are working in the natural sciences.

Among undergraduate science subjects, Medicine and Maths receive the most applications, with around ten applicants competing for each place, both at Wadham and across the University as a whole. At post-graduate level, courses in Chemistry and Engineering are amongst the most popular.