The Wolfson Foundation archive housed here at the Royal Society is an excellent resource for investigating grants and fundraising in arts, humanities, medicine and science.

I wrote briefly about the Wolfson Foundation’s interactions with the Royal Society through a variety of funding schemes including the Wolfson Research Professorships (WF/39A). The professorship came about as a result of a direct letter from the Society’s President Sir Cyril Hinshelwood to Isaac Wolfson in 1959, as part of a larger tercentenary appeal. The letter still has the small note attached to it stating that ‘SIR CYRIL HINSHELWOOD IS A V.I.P.’, and it seems both the Foundation and Society had the utmost respect for each other, despite the records showing that it took some time for them to decide how best to support scientific research through the Society. The first holder of this prestigious professorship was Dorothy Hodgkin, followed by Alan Fersht and Alec Jeffreys.


The Royal Society invited representatives from the Wolfson Foundation to the tercentenary celebrations. This photograph of Lord Nathan, an early Chairman of the Wolfson Foundation, was taken at a tercentenary event.


The Royal Society was not the only beneficiary of the Foundation’s interest in funding research. In 1957 the Foundation helped to establish a professorship in metallurgy at the University of Oxford. The approach (like that of the Royal Society) was made with a personal letter to Isaac Wolfson, from Lord Glyn (WF/6). In this letter he emphasises the growing importance of this particular area of research: ‘it is absolutely essential, if progress is to be made for the peacetime development of Atomic Energy, that such a Chair should be founded with the least possible delay’.

The first person to hold this professorship was a Royal Society Fellow, Professor William Hume-Rothery, and he was joined at the Department of Metallurgy by Dr V B Nileshwar, a Wolfson Research Fellow (WF/7). Papers from our Sir Francis Simon collection complement the Wolfson file as they include correspondence showing that work had been done to help establish a department of metallurgy since 1953. It includes letters between Simon, the Registrar at Oxford and Hume-Rothery (FS/7/4/1/5).


Professor William Hume-Rothery FRS © Godfrey Argent Studios


This is just one example of the Foundation investing in a growing and relatively ‘new’ area of research. In a similar case, they worked with the University of Cambridge towards the creation of an Institute of Criminology in 1959, with Sir Leon Radzinowicz FBA becoming the Wolfson Professor of Criminology at the newly formed Institute (WF/41). They also worked again with the University of Cambridge in the establishment of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy – of course, astronomy is not a new research area, but the Institute originally faced difficulties as the General Board of the University was not sympathetic to the ‘expansion of University activities’. Professor Fred Hoyle (another of the Royal Society’s Fellows) had threatened to resign should the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy not be established, and undoubtedly funding from the Wolfson Foundation, Science Research Council and Nuffield Foundation ensured the project could go ahead (WF/198). In 1972 the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy joined with the Cambridge University Observatory and the Solar Physics Observatory to form the Institute of Astronomy.

Of course, this blog post can only offer a brief glimpse of the Wolfson Collection. A thorough investigation of the files themselves will reveal interesting details to researchers, and shed light on the decision-making behind the funding. It is worth noting that these examples represent a small fraction of the institutions and people who have been awarded grants by the Wolfson Foundation. Funding has not been limited to universities or learned societies, though undoubtedly they have benefitted significantly from the Foundation’s interest, so do take a look at the catalogue to see the wide range of organisations that have benefitted from the grants on offer.


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