Guest post by James Poskett.

Imagine you were elected to join the Royal Society. Yes, at last! Those three letters. Go on, say them aloud: FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society). You’d be giddy with excitement, and want to seal the deal as soon as possible. So what needs doing?

Well, most importantly, you need to sign the Royal Society Charter Book. This hefty tome dates back to 1663 and contains the signature of every Fellow and Member. Some have been consigned to historical obscurity (Walter Ewer FRS, anyone?) whereas others (Boyle, Newton, Darwin, etc.) are so well-known that they have dispensed with their first names. Anyway, you wouldn’t be wasting time on these historical asides. No, you’d get straight down to Carlton House Terrace, where you’d whip out your finest pen and sign your name into history.

For Sigmund Freud, whose birthday it is today, things were not so simple. In the 1930s Freud was living and working in Vienna, continuing his work in psychoanalysis. But following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, he was forced to flee. Freud and his family, along with countless other Jews, became victims of anti-Semitism. His office was searched, his books were burned and his daughter, Anna Freud, was held for questioning by the Gestapo. Thankfully, with the aid of the aristocrat Marie Bonaparte, Freud and the majority of his immediate family escaped to London in June 1938, before the outbreak of the Second World War and the atrocities that followed.

Two years earlier, Freud had been elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. (Incidentally, this entitles you to use the postnominal ForMemRS, not as catchy I know). Now, safe in London, he was finally able to sign the Charter Book.

One more historical titbit remains. The Council Minutes in the Archive reveal that:

Authority was given for the Charter Book to be taken to the house of Dr Sigmund Freud (Foreign Member) in order that his signature be made therein.”

Aged 82 and suffering from jaw cancer, it is likely that Freud was in considerable discomfort at this point. Consequently, the Royal Society gave permission for perhaps their most significant artefact to go on a short journey across London. So rather than travelling to Burlington House (the then location of the Royal Society), Freud signed the Charter Book in his own home at 20 Maresfield Gardens. This moment is captured in this wonderful photograph taken by Marie Bonaparte, also signed by Freud himself.

Photo showing (L-R) J D Griffith Davies (Royal Society Assistant Secretary), Sir Albert Seward, Sigmund Freud and A V Hill at Freud’s home in Hampstead, after Freud’s admission to the Royal Society in 1938. RS IM/001085.


Now, in the history of science, debating Freud’s legacy is certainly well-trod ground. Nonetheless, as it’s his birthday, I’d like to add my own thoughts.

There are some who would cringe at the idea that psychoanalysis was (and even still is) thought of as a science. Freud’s certificate simply states that he was elected to the Royal Society for “pioneering work in psychoanalysis”. And there we have it, in plain English: Freud was admitted to the world’s oldest scientific society for his work in what many now consider to be a pseudoscience.

What should we make of this? Is the history of the Royal Society one of a few great scientists and a load of quacks? Of course not. What this short episode highlights is the value of diversity in science. Whether or not psychoanalysis is a science is really immaterial (akin to the question of whether or not jazz is serious music, as my tutor once said).

The success of the Royal Society lies in the fact that, within the leather-clad Charter Book are close to 8000 signatures. And each of those 8000 signatories most likely believed different things. To take one example, Sir Harold Jeffreys FRS (a man instrumental in Freud’s election to the Royal Society) believed that numbers held an assortment of unconscious meanings: for instance, that large numbers… are associated with ambivalent attitudes to the mother”. Make of that what you will, but this didn’t stop him producing more traditional meteorological and geological work at the Met Office. Even Newton had some pretty wacky ideas, ranging from hidden meanings in the Bible to the secrets of alchemy. What we should draw from this is that all ideas, even the seemingly embarrassing ones, can potentially contribute to the Society’s aim of expanding the frontiers of knowledge.

So, whether you think psychoanalysis is a science or not, join me in wishing Sigmund Freud a Happy Birthday, and let’s celebrate the diversity of thought that science is capable of producing.

James Poskett is a recent graduate of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. There he completed his dissertation on the philosophy of scientific method entitled “Against Method, or For Pluralism”.

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