I recently received an enquiry about whether the Royal Society publishes obituaries of deceased Fellows and, if so, when this practice began. The first part of the question was easy to answer, as I am moderately familiar with the Society’s current series of obituaries, the Biographical Memoirs, but I realised I had no idea when they started. One of the lovely things about my job is that I am expected to pursue this sort of thing, so I dived into the records with relish.
Biographical Memoirs has been in publication since 1955, and before that the Obituary Notices were published from 1932 – further information and links to the content of the obituaries can be found on the Biog.Mems. website. Prior to 1932, “Obituary notices of deceased Fellows” were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, but by this stage my curiosity was well-and-truly-piqued as these seem to have just started for no apparent reason.
I was already aware that announcing the names of Fellows who had died over the past year was a custom honoured annually at the Anniversary Meetings of the Society, but I hadn’t realised that this had been going on since 1743. The minutes of the meeting on 30th November 1743 record that the then President, Martin Folkes, announced that it would be appropriate to record the Fellows who had died each year and to read out the list at the Anniversary Meeting, and this has been done ever since.
I don’t know whether the mid 1700s were a time of particular preoccupation with this sort of thing, but I was most interested to discover in his history of the early years of the Royal Society (published in 1756), Thomas Birch records a number of obituaries of Fellows who died between 1667 and 1686. These are added to the records of the November 30th meetings and provide a reasonable amount of biographical detail about their subjects, although Birch doesn’t record whether these are the only Fellows who died in these years. Most significantly, none of these deaths are so much as noted in the minute books of the time, so it seems that that Birch must have been sufficiently interested to research them himself.
During his time as president of the Royal Society(1820-1827), Humphry Davy seems to have been responsible for instigating the practice of producing longer obituaries, as the following extract from the minutes of the meeting on November 30th 1822 demonstrates. Having read out the list of names of deceased Fellows, he continued:
“In perusing this list Gentlemen (of deaths) some names have arrested my attention with respect to which I consider it as a duty to say a few words. I cannot enter upon a studied eulogy of the merits of the illustrious dead; but I am sure you will not consider a short tribute of respect to their memory, such as naturally arises out of this occasion, improper or out of place, and which however unequal it may be to their merits, will, I trust, be in unison with the feelings of the Society.” [JBO/43/494]
It was customary for the President to address the anniversary meeting at some length, and for the remainder of his presidency Davy began his speech with the same theme. His successor, Davies Gilbert (PRS 1827-1830), followed suit, and Gilbert’s final Anniversary Address as President, delivered in 1830, is also published in the Proceedings. Regular publication of the annual presidential addresses seems to have begun around 1840, although I haven’t found any definitive indication of why 1854 was the year in which the biographical notices became a separate entity.
Looking through the Proceedings, it seems that the biographical notices began to become separated out from the main anniversary address during the Presidency of the Earl of Rosse (1848-1854), and by this stage Davy’s personal approach had been replaced by a more formal style of obituary. I wonder if the Earl even prepared them himself, or whether one of the secretaries was charged with doing this. There is certainly some evidence that the responsibility for preparing these obituaries was not always taken by the President himself, as a footnote to the minutes of 30th November 1841 records:
“The vice President in the chair then called upon Dr Roget, the senior secretary, to read to the meeting the biographical memoirs which he had written of some of the Fellows lately deceased, which were read accordingly. The thanks of the meeting were given to Dr Roget for having drawn up these biographical notices, which were ordered to be printed.” [JBO/48/755]
Although Davies Gilbert apparently tried to say something about all the Fellows who had passed away in 1827, this seems to have been the only time this was attempted, and in 1829 he spoke about only Woolaston, Young and Davy. Like Davy himself, he may have realised that doing justice to everyone was impossible, and this selective approach began a trend continued by their successors – for example in 1854 there were 34 deaths recorded over the previous year, but only 7 of them received obituary notices in the Proceedings.
Currently Biographical Memoirs tends to feature around 20 obituaries each year, although as these tend to be quite in-depth accounts the subjects may have been deceased for slightly longer than a year by the time of publication. Taken cumulatively they form a fascinating collection of accounts of some extraordinary lives, and I find them quite inspiring.