On the day that Margaret Thatcher, the last British Prime Minister to be a Fellow of the Royal Society, is laid to rest, I thought it would be interesting to look back at previous British Prime Ministers who were also Fellows.
It is worth mentioning that the term ‘Prime Minister’ evolved from the post of First Lord of the Treasury, and modern historians generally apply the title of first Prime Minister to Robert Walpole (not a Fellow) who led the government from 1721-42. To my surprise, 31 Prime Ministers have been Fellows of the Royal Society. Alphabetically the list goes from Herbert Asquith to Harold Wilson, and chronologically from Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, who first took office in 1754, to Mrs Thatcher herself.
Fellows are elected because of their scientific contribution, though in addition there has always been provision for Privy Councillors and members of the nobility to be elected for other reasons. This came under the heading of the privileged class, but was revised in 1902 to become Statute XII where Council may, “once every two years, recommend for election not more than two persons who either have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science, or are such that their election would be of signal benefit to the Society”. Margaret Thatcher was elected under this Statute in 1983, the same year as David Attenborough.
These days it is unlikely that the names of the early Prime Ministerial Fellows would be familiar in either scientific or political context: the aforementioned Thomas Pelham-Holles, elected FRS in 1749 and Prime Minister 1754-56 and 1757-62; or Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, elected FRS in 1828 and Prime Minister 1827-28; or even Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, elected 1886 and Prime Minister 1894-95, even though he was also the Chairman of the first County Council of London.
Others would be more familiar: William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, elected FRS towards the end of his second term of office as Prime Minister in 1841; Benjamin Disraeli, elected FRS in 1876 in the middle of his term of office 1874-80; William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham, elected 1744 before his Prime Ministerial term 1766-68; and Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, elected FRS in 1853 before becoming Prime Minister 1855-58 and 1859-65. Also among the Fellowship were the Duke of Wellington, elected FRS in 1847 after his terms of office in 1828-30 and 1834, and William Ewart Gladstone, elected FRS in 1881 and Prime Minister four times (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, and 1892-94). And of course there are the well-known names of the twentieth century: James Ramsay MacDonald, Herbert Asquith, Arthur Balfour, Stanley Baldwin, Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson.
Of them all, only Margaret Thatcher had a degree in a scientific subject, and the best-known Prime Ministerial Fellow, Sir Winston Churchill, had no degree at all. He was elected to the Fellowship in May 1941, just over a year after he first became Prime Minister, and was described by his friend Frederick Lindemann, head of the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford, as “a scientist who had missed his vocation”. In 1924 Churchill wrote to Lindemann about a report of a deadly ray being invented, in 1927 both were corresponding with Hugh Trenchard, Marshal of the RAF, about the design of bomb sights, and in the 1930s both were extremely worried about air defence against Germany, and later the nuclear bomb. Churchill was appreciative of science and its importance throughout both World Wars and after.
Baroness Thatcher is the last of the Prime Ministers who were also elected as Fellows. It is now the practice of the Royal Society not to elect serving ministers of the Crown to Honorary Fellowship.