Freemasons And The Royal Society
Nobel Prize winning scientist and Freemason, Enrico Fermi, FRS, March 1953. [Photograph by Ralph Morse, TIME LIFE Getty Images]
Matthew Scanlan Reports On A New Exhibition At Freemasons’ Hall, London
On 30 November 1660, Christopher Wren delivered a lecture at one of the regular meetings of natural philosophers who met at the Gresham College in the City of London, and at this meeting it was decided to form a society for the promotion of ‘Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’.
Two years later, with the invaluable assistance of the Scottish courtier Sir Robert Moray, Charles II granted the new body his personal imprimatur in the form of a charter and so the Royal Society was born.
Today the Royal Society is the United Kingdom’s National Academy of Science and as it is currently celebrating its 350th anniversary, the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London, are staging a special exhibition which focuses upon the extraordinary number of Freemasons who have been Fellows of this august body since its inception.
The relationship between the Royal Society and Freemasonry goes back to its earliest days in Restoration London, when Sir Robert Moray – the earliest known non-stonemason to have joined a masonic lodge in England – was the Society’s first interim President.
Similarly, another Fellow of the Society was the English antiquary Elias Ashmole, who had famously been made a Freemason at Warrington, then in Lancashire, on 16 October 1646.
In the early eighteenth century, the unofficial relationship between the two associations strengthened when many Fellows of the Royal Society sought membership of a masonic lodge and a significant number were also closely involved with the development of the new grand lodge. Fellows such as Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a noted Newtonian experimentalist and Curator of the Royal Society, who served as both Grand Master (1719-20) and Deputy Grand Master (1723, 1725-7) of the Premier Grand Lodge. While another influential mason, Martin Folkes, not only served as Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge (1724-25), but he subsequently went on to become President of the Royal Society in 1741, a position he held for nine years.
Some lodges also provided a forum where scientific lectures and demonstrations could be held, a practice that may well have strengthened the ties between the two organisations, albeit unofficially. And ever since this time, hundreds of Royal Society Fellows have belonged to the Craft, including several royals such as King George IV, Oscar I of Sweden and Norway, the Duke of Sussex (Queen Victoria’s uncle and the first grand master of the United Grand Lodge of England), and the current Grand Master, H.R.H. the Duke of Kent.
Other notables have included the Prime Ministers, Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, George Canning and Sir Winston Churchill; the philosophers, Helvetius, Montesquieu and Voltaire; the scientists, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and Sir Joseph Banks; the explorers, James Bruce and Sir Charles Warren; the writer, Edward Gibbon, the architect, Robert Adam, and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles.
However, the names of several masonic Fellows appear to stand out from the rest in that they have helped to significantly shape the world as we know it today. These include:
James Watt (1736-1819)
Scottish engineer and inventor who started out as a mathematical instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, but who went on to invaluably improve Thomas Newcomen’s engine by introducing a separate steam condenser.
Watt subsequently obtained patents for the expansion principle, parallel motion linkage, the double-acting engine, the centrifugal governor, and a smokeless furnace. Today he is chiefly remembered for giving his name to the unit of power, the watt, and is widely viewed as the mechanical engineer whose inventions helped to bring about the Industrial Revolution. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) on 24 November 1785.
Watt was initiated in a Scottish Lodge in 1763.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823)
English physician who discovered the vaccination after developing the idea that a small amount of the skin disease cowpox could help protect against smallpox, and in 1796 he successfully demonstrated his theory on an eight-year old boy. The vaccination was initially opposed by the medical establishment, although it was soon adopted and used in many parts of the world. Jenner spent the rest of his life promoting his discovery and Parliament rewarded him with two sizeable grants; Napoleon even had a medal struck in his honour. He was elected FRS on 26 February 1789.
Jenner was initiated in Lodge of Faith and Friendship No. 449, which met in his birth-town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire (sometime before December 1802), and he went on to serve as its Worshipful Master (WM) in 1812; he was also exalted in the Royal Arch in 1804. Following his death the Gloucestershire Freemasons commissioned a statue of him, which today stands near to the great west door of Gloucester Cathedral.
Colonel George Everest (1790-1866)
Mount Everest was named after Sir George Everest, a Welsh military engineer, surveyor and geographer who became Surveyor-General of India in 1830. The mountain was named in his honour despite objections from Sir George himself. He was elected FRS on 8 March 1827.
Sir George Everest is thought to have been initiated in Neptune Lodge No. 441, Penang (date unknown), and he subsequently joined the Prince of Wales’s Lodge No. 493 (now No. 259), on 20 February 1829.
Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)
Scottish bacteriologist and Nobel Prize Winner who discovered penicillin. After serving as Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, Fleming worked at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where he pioneered the use of anti-typhoid vaccines on humans and Salvarsan against syphilis. In 1928 he discovered Penicillin, for which he later shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. He was elected FRS on 18 March 1943.
Fleming was initiated in Sancta Maria Lodge No. 2682, in 1909 and was a member of the Royal Arch. He joined two London lodges: London Scottish Rifles No. 2310, and Misericordia Lodge No. 3286, serving as its Master in 1935.
In 1942 he was promoted Senior Grand Deacon and Past Grand Sojourner, and six years later he was made Past Junior Grand Warden and Past Grand Scribe Nehemiah.
Sir Edward Victor Appleton (1892-1965)
English physicist and Nobel Prize winner, whose work on the Ionosphere led to the development of radar. Educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, Appleton was appointed Professor at the universities of London and Cambridge respectively, became Secretary for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (1939), and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University (1949). In 1947 he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the Ionosphere and for revealing the existence of a layer of electrically charged particles in the upper atmosphere (the Appleton layer), which plays a crucial part in distant wireless communication and radar. He was elected FRS on 12 May 1927.
Appleton was initiated on 25 April 1922 in Isaac Newton Lodge No. 859, Cambridge, and he was raised on 20 October the same year. He was not active in the craft and resigned on 30 September 1925.
Charles Samuel Myers (1873-1946)
English pioneer psychologist who coined the term ‘shell shock’. Myers was educated at Cambridge, University and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, before embarking on an anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait. He subsequently became Professor of experimental psychology at King’s College London (1906-9), raised funds for the first experimental laboratory specifically designed for Psychology at Cambridge (1912), and was appointed consultant psychologist to the British army in France, where he promoted the idea that shell shock was a treatable condition. He later became the first President of the British Psychological Society and he was elected FRS on 6 May 1935.
Myers was initiated on 5 March 1895 in Isaac Newton Lodge No. 859, Cambridge, and raised on 28 May. A keen mason, he joined Rahere Lodge No. 2546, London, and Alma Mater Lodge No. 1492, Cambridge, of which he became Master in 1908, and he also founded two lodges: Caius Lodge No. 3355, (Master in 1919) and Cantabrigia Lodge No. 3532, Cambridge. In 1937 he was appointed both Past Senior Grand Deacon and Past Grand Sojourner.
William Halse Rivers (1864-1922)
English anthropologist and psychiatrist. Educated at London University and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rivers became the youngest graduate in the history of the hospital, and like Samuel Myers (see above) he joined the Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait, and later travelled to, and developed an interest in, Melanesia. During the First World War he was commissioned Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was instrumental in developing techniques to heal shell-shocked soldiers. One notable officer in his care was the celebrated war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who thirty years later wrote: ‘I should like to meet Rivers in the “next world”.’ He was elected FRS on 7 May 1908.
Rivers was initiated on 27 February 1909 and raised in the October of that year in Alma Mater Lodge No. 1492, Cambridge.
Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)
Italian nuclear physicist and Nobel Prize Winner. Born in Rome and educated at the Universities of Pisa, Göttingen and Leiden, Fermi was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome (1927) and for the next six years he worked on a semi-quantitative method of calculating atomic particles. In 1938 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in Stockholm, but fearing for the safety of his Jewish wife in Fascist Italy he emigrated to the United States. There he was appointed Professor of Physics at Columbia University, New York (1939-42) and successfully directed the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in Chicago on 2 December 1942. He subsequently became a leading member of the wartime Manhattan Project which worked on the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb, but later argued against the development of the hydrogen bomb. The element fermium is named after him. He was elected FRS on 27 April 1950.
Fermi became a member of Adriano Lemmi Lodge, Rome, in 1923, which was registered with the Gran Loggia d’Italia di Piazza del Gesu.