10 questions with Susannah Gibson

A surprising portion of today’s scientific discoveries can be traced back to a single group: the 19th century Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Susannah Gibson is the author of The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Who is Susannah Gibson?

I was three years into a physics degree when I discovered history of science. I had always struggled to choose between science and arts subjects, but when I discovered history of science I realized I could do both. I went on to do a Masters and PhD in it.

Initially I was drawn to history of the physical sciences, but partway through my masters I attended a seminar by Joe Cain at University College London on natural theology and evolution and got completely hooked on the history of the life sciences.   

Introduce The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science.

This book is about the history of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. This is Cambridge’s oldest scientific society, which was founded in 1819 and is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.

In 1819, Cambridge was a scientific backwater; now it’s a world-leading center for science.

This book tells the story of modern science, how it came to Cambridge, and how the Society was instrumental in making it happen. 

Is there a research victory or discovery you are particularly proud of? Share an example of how the Cambridge Philosophical Society archive was sometimes “frustratingly incomplete.”

I’m proud of making connections between a lot of different things. For example, everyone knows about Darwin’s Beagle voyage, Venn’s diagrams, Bragg’s x-ray diffraction, Wilson’s cloud chamber – but no one has ever linked them all to the same source before.

All of these things came to the world’s attention through the work of the Philosophical Society.

By telling a story that links all of these seemingly disparate things, I’ve shown just how important the Society was in the development of science.

I wish there was more about the nefarious Mr. Crouch in the Society’s archive. Through embezzlement, he almost destroyed the Society in the 1850s, but a lot of details about him are missing from the archive.

Archives were only catalogued in 2014. How did this come about and how essential are they to your work? What kinds of outstanding research questions might the archives still help to answer?

The Society brought in a professional archivist in 2014 as part of the preparations for the bicentenary celebrations. Until this point, the archive had been quite haphazardly maintained and difficult for historians to work with. Now, you can find whatever you need within minutes. Without the archive catalogue this book would have taken a lot longer to research.

The archive forms the backbone of the book. Whenever I wasn’t sure where the story was going, I’d go back to the minutes of the meetings, and just follow the material. It always led to an amazing story in the end.

It wasn’t possible to discuss every aspect of the Society’s history in a 100,000-word book, so there’s still lots of original material in the archive that no one’s ever written about.

For example, the book mostly deals with nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century history, but there are also lots of great stories from the later twentieth century, such as international relations between scientists during the Cold War.

What was your most breathtaking experience in the archives?

One of the most visually striking things I found in the archive was a set of about 10,000 anthropometric cards. These were part of a long-running experiment that took place from the 1880s to the early 1900s. Each card records the physical characteristics of an individual undergraduate.

Researchers (including Venn of Venn diagram fame) then used this data to try to work out if there was a connection between physical and mental attributes – for example, did students with larger heads do better in exams? Some of the students who took part include Ernest Rutherford, Horace Darwin, and John Maynard Keynes.

Who were Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Hanslow?

Adam Sedgwick was the son of a Yorkshire vicar. He came to Trinity College Cambridge in 1804 as a sizar – a poor student who had to perform chores in his college to pay his way. He worked incredibly hard and eventually won a scholarship and, later, a fellowship in the college.

In 1818 Sedgwick was appointed Cambridge University’s Woodwardian Professor of Geology; this was particularly impressive because Sedgwick had never studied geology in his life. But he threw himself into his new job and soon became a well-respected expert.

He is best remembered today as the person who identified and named the Cambrian, Devonian and Silurian geological periods.

John Stevens Henslow is most famous as Darwin’s mentor.

He was a few years younger than Sedgwick; the two men met when Henslow was a student and Sedgwick a junior tutor and they instantly bonded over their love of natural history and the sciences. In the 1820s, Henslow was appointed Cambridge’s Professor of Mineralogy, and later Professor of Botany.

It was while on a geology fieldtrip together in 1819 that Sedgwick and Henslow dreamed up the idea of a scientific society for Cambridge – what would become the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

How does Charles Darwin fit into the picture of the early the Cambridge Philosophical Society?

Darwin’s trip on the HMS Beagle had been arranged through his Cambridge contacts – all fellows of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. In part, they wanted a Cambridge man on the voyage so that he could bring back specimens for the Society’s museum.

Throughout the five years that Darwin travelled on the Beagle, he wrote constant letters to his old mentor Henslow.

Henslow was so impressed by Darwin’s descriptions of the landscape, flora and fauna of South America that he read his letters aloud at meetings of the Philosophical Society in 1835.

These readings were so popular that Henslow decided to publish extracts from the letters.

This was Charles Darwin’s first scientific paper (but due to the length of time it took Henslow’s letters to reach him, he didn’t find out he was a published author until several months after the book had appeared).

In what ways was the Cambridge Philosophical Society similar to and different from other provincial societies of the early 1800s?

Literary and philosophical societies were immensely popular in Britain in the decades around 1800. Most big towns had one, and they were especially popular in industrial towns like Manchester and fashionable spa towns like Bath.

The key difference with the Cambridge Philosophical Society was that it was founded in a university town, and prospective members of the society had to have a degree from the University of Cambridge.

This meant that every member of the Society had a good knowledge of mathematics (a central part of the Cambridge curriculum at the time) and so the fellows of the Society could engage with quite sophisticated scientific research.

The Cambridge Philosophical Society became more specialized while the other philosophical societies remained quite broad institutions.

What are some significant discoveries with origins directly traceable to the Cambridge Philosophical Society?

CTR Wilson’s cloud chamber which was used to study sub-atomic particles was also first described at a meeting of the Society in 1895 when he was 26.

Lawrence Bragg’s theory of x-ray diffraction was first presented to the Society in 1912 when he was just 22. Both men won Nobel Prizes for these discoveries.

The Society was significant because it allowed very junior researchers – like Wilson and Bragg – to present works in progress and gave them a platform when other more formal societies might not.

How can this single society be seen as a microcosm for scientific interest and discovery around the world?

The Society grew up just as modern science was developing. The scientific disciplines were beginning to separate out; no longer were ‘natural philosophers’ expected to understand all aspects of nature, but the new breed of ‘scientists’ could specialize in particular subjects like geology or physiology.

The Society supported this specialization and so, within the small town of Cambridge, we can see how the story of science developed.

The history of the Society also tells very human stories – for example, how women fought for their right to take part in the sciences and university life, and how people from less privileged backgrounds struggled to become scientists. The details of these stories echo many others from around the world.       

If you could go back in time and witness any event associated with the early Cambridge Philosophical Society, what would you most like to see?

I would love to visit the museum or attend a meeting in All Saint’s Passage.

The house the Society built there still exists but is now a medical practice and has been changed a lot over the years with the larger rooms – the meeting room and museum – subdivided into smaller rooms and the skylights removed.

Only one image of a meeting in progress survives (from 1845) but it’s incredibly atmospheric.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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