On the 12th of April 1682 the Fellows of the Royal Society sat down to a ‘philosophical supper’ – a meal consisting mostly of various preparations cooked in Denis Papin’s digester (an early form of pressure cooker). The overlap between the sociable and the scientific in the Royal Society has always been strong, and this blog has previously touched on it – as when Joseph Banks’s ailing pet turtle was prepared for the pot and shared, with evident relish, by the members of the Royal Society’s dining club.

There’s nothing very unusual in scientists having things named after them – laws, theorems, constants, units of measurement, species, plant varieties, animal breeds, instruments, processes, equations and laboratories. I wouldn’t immediately have thought of adding foodstuffs to the list, until a recent trawl of the Royal Society’s defaulters’ lists in the 18th century threw up the name of William Oliver. Oliver was a successful Bath physician who contributed occasional papers to the Society, a couple of which were printed in the Philosophical Transactions; he is better known to history, however, as the inventor of the Bath Oliver biscuit. He was also the father-in-law of a future President of the Society, Sir John Pringle (not, as far as we know, the inventor of the famously moreish potato snack.)

The Bath Oliver was developed as a remedy, but it became a success when (legend has it) Oliver bequeathed the recipe to his coachman, a Mr Atkins (nothing to do with the Atkins diet), along with £100 and ten sacks of the finest wheat flour; the lucky recipient is supposed to have opened a shop and made his fortune.

In fact the President of the Society at the time of Oliver’s election was Sir Hans Sloane, another man who’d made a fortune as a physician – and who also lent his name to one of the first European recipes for drinking chocolate (which he made more palatable by mixing it with milk and sugar.) Under the name Sloane’s drinking chocolate, it helped make the fortunes of the Cadbury brothers and continued to be manufactured under that name into the 20th century.

In fact there are a surprising number of food-related Fellows. Both the Duke of Wellington (Beef Wellington) and John, 4th Earl of Sandwich (self-explanatory) were Fellows of the Society with foods named after them – both very distinguished, though their membership of the Royal Society perhaps testifies more to the organisation’s social cachet in the 18th and 19th centuries than to either man’s scientific accomplishment. Most readers will also no doubt be familiar with the choco-leibniz, named for the great German mathematician, philosopher, and Fellow of the Royal Society – not because he had any hand in its creation, but because he was one of the most famous citizens of Hanover, where the Bahlsen company was based.


A Leibniz-Keks. Photo by Rainer Zens (Wikimedia Commons).


The real mania for naming foods after celebrities took hold in the 19th century, and the epicentre of the phenomenon was Delmonico’s restaurant in New York, where the head chef, Charles Ranhofer, created dozens of dishes in honour of the great and famous – potatoes Sarah (for the actress Sarah Bernhardt), Veal Pie à la Dickens, and chicken filets Sadi Carnot (named for the French politician Marie-François, alas, rather than his uncle Nicolas the theorist of thermodynamics.) Among these was Humboldt Pudding, named after the German explorer and naturalist (and FRS) Alexander von Humboldt.

To my inexpressible regret, the Fig Newton, which was the germ of the idea behind this blog post, turns out to be named not after Sir Isaac Newton but the manufacturer’s home town of Newton, Massachussetts. Still, one can’t have everything.


Fig Newton biscuits (no relation). Photo by Evan Amos (Wikimedia Commons).


So we almost have the makings of a Fellows’ menu here – Sandwiches for the entrée, Beef Wellington as a main, Humboldt pudding, Bath Olivers to accompany the cheese course, and Choco-Leibniz as petits-fours (and if anyone can think of a cheese named for a Fellow of the Society that would round things off nicely.) And, of course, a nice cup of Sloane’s drinking chocolate before bed, once the gathering has broken up…


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