Last Updated: 2004, May 15

Scholarly Societies Project

Scholarly Societies as Meeting Sponsors and Publishers

The Seventeenth Century

In 1928 Martha Ornstein published a seminal work entitled Rôle of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century. Although the scope of her work is primarily restricted to the sciences, she occasionally makes reference to societies that were concerned with the humanities and social sciences. In this first section, we draw heavily on that work.

In her work, she traces the first scientific societies to the early years of the seventeenth century. The goal of these early societies was generally to promote research by providing a meeting place at which research could be discussed or even carried out.

In the chapter on Italian Scientific Societies, she indicates that the Accademia del Cimento of Florence (1657-1667) was the first organized scientific academy, although the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome (1600-1630) was an important forerunner of it. The latter society published the proceedings of its meetings as Gesta Lynceorum, which was the earliest (1609) publication of any scientific society.

In the chapter on The Royal Society, she notes that it grew out of informal weekly meetings in London that first began in 1645. At these meetings, people interested in the new experimental science gathered for discussions. Some members moved to Oxford around 1648-1649, and established separate meetings there. But by 1658 many had moved back to London, and Gresham College in London became the focus of the meetings that led to the founding in 1660 of the Royal Society (also known as the Royal Society of London), which still exists today.

In a later chapter on Scientific Journals, Ornstein points out that scholarly communication existed among scientists prior to the establishment of real scientific journals, but that it was primarily in the form of informal hand-written correspondence by some of the voluminous letters-writers of the day, like Mersenne and Wallis. This type of communication caused problems of impartiality in evaluating research, and of establishing priority.

Ornstein considers two particular publications that were instrumental in solving these problems, and that may be considered the forerunners of two different types of journals.

The first of these, Journal des Sçavans, first appeared on January 5, 1665. Properly speaking this was not a society publication until well over two centuries later. In fact it began as the work of one person, Denis de Sallo. After Jesuit criticism, it was carried on by a sequence of Abbés. It was suspended in 1792 because of the political upheaval in France, reinstituted briefly in 1797, and re-established in 1816, with the word Savants in the new orthography. In 1903 it came under the auspices of l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres of the Institut de France. Ornstein describes the early Journal des Sçavans as a model for journals appealing to a broad reading public. In this sense, it helped act as a way of communicating between the societies and the lay public, much as popular science journals do today.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London began just two months later. Unlike Journal des Sçavans, Philosophical Transactions was more clearly devoted to research, and served as a model for future publications of scientific societies. Like the French journal, the English journal is still publishing at present. Because of the different political histories of the respective countries, however, there was no break in publication in Philosophical Transactions.

In 1962 Kronick published a History of Scientific & Technical Periodicals covering the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In it, he points out (pp. 134-135, 2nd ed.) that until about 1750 the Philosophical Transactions was not officially published by the Royal Society of London. There was nonetheless a close connection between the two throughout that time.

The Eighteenth Century

Kronick's analysis shows (p. 121, 2nd ed.) that of all the scientific periodicals that he considered to be "substantive" (that is, consisting primarily of original research articles), only 25% were from scholarly societies. But he also suggests that this is why so many eighteenth century periodicals were of such brief duration: 75% of them lacked the continuity often provided by society sponsorship. He goes on to say that the relatively long duration of society publications resulted in the fact that in the eighteenth century there were often as many active substantive periodicals published by societies as not published by societies.

To see the volume of research published in journals of scholarly societies prior to 1800, one need only look in the Reuss Repertorium, a monumental bibliography in 16 volumes.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In spite of the proliferation of non-societal journals in the last two centuries, scholarly societies have continued to play an important role in encouraging research and in publishing the results of it.

A Partial Chronology of Scholarly Societies

To give some feeling for the historical development of scholarly societies, we have prepared a chronology of the dates of founding of all societies in the Scholarly Societies Project for which we have been able to establish founding dates.

The chronology makes it clear that until well into the nineteenth century, scholarly societies tended to be of broad scope (usually covering all the sciences or all the arts, or both), and associated with a definite geographical area (often a city). The chronology also demonstrates that with the passage of time, increasingly specialized scholarly societies came in to being.

References to Literature Cited

Ornstein on Scientific Societies

Ornstein, Martha.
Rôle of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century.
University of Chicago, 1928 and 1938. Reprint edition: Archon Books, Hamden & London: 1963. xviii, 308 p.

A virtually unchanged reprint of Ornstein's 1913 doctoral dissertation, this is the classic study of the beginnings of scientific societies in Western Europe.

Kronick on Scientific & Technical Journals

Kronick, David A.
A History of Scientific & Technical Periodicals: The origins and development of the scientific and technical press, 1665-1790.
2nd ed. Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J.: 1976. xvi, 336 p. (First ed. 1962)

Also originating in a doctoral dissertation, Kronick's study is a very rich resource examining the early history and development of scientific and technical journals. It incorporates history, analysis, and tablular data.



Jim Parrott
The Editor
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