As the second of the two new cataloguers mentioned in Katherine’s recent blog post, I too will be delving into the varied contents of the New Letter Books (ref. NLB) to pluck out topics of interest.

The volumes I have worked on have run a similar gamut to those mentioned by Katherine, from the straightforwardly administrative to the unexpected and enlightening, as the arrangements of the Royal Society’s soirées neatly show. These cover the important matters from ice cream flavours (Neapolitan, of course – NLB/2/404), claret-cup punches and the selection of gentlemen to explain exhibits at press views (NLB/2/395), to the sourcing of the exhibits themselves. For instance, having once been unable to accept the offer of demonstrating Thomas Edison’s phonograph, they write again to its promotor Colonel George Edward Gouraud (1842-1912) in May 1889 soliciting a phonograph for the forthcoming Ladies’ soirée (NLB/3/381).

We also find information about the generosity of the Society in supporting and recognising the achievements of scientists. For example, the correspondence occasionally refers to the administration of the Scientific Relief Fund for the relief of needy men of scientific achievement, or of their widows or families. As it was a small fund, applicable to a specific group (and perhaps a wish to avoid associating such a fund with the frivolity of theatre!), they politely declined the ticket benefit offered by Miss Grace Hawthorne, actress and lessee of the Royal Princess’s Theatre on 17 May 1889 (NLB/3/350).

In a grander gesture, the Royal Society sought to involve itself in a fund being established by the Lord Mayor of London in 1889 to contribute to the work of the newly founded Institut Pasteur (inaugurated in November 1888), thereby honouring the success of Louis Pasteur (1822-95).


Portrait of Louis Pasteur by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon Nadar (Tracts RS1/6)


The letter which caught my eye was from the President of the Royal Society, George Gabriel Stokes, to Sir Henry Isaacs, the Lord Mayor of London (NLB/3/501). Stokes sought to communicate the appreciative feelings of the Society’s Council towards the proposed Mansion House meeting on 1 July 1889. It was called with the intention of raising a fund to both acknowledge the indebtedness of Great Britain to the Institut Pasteur, in which 200 cases of rabies were said to have been cured in Britons using Pasteur’s system, and to cover the expense of the journey to Paris for poorer countrymen who may need treatment there.

Evidently, the successful rabies vaccine most attracted the Society’s attention; it had been produced by desiccating the spinal cords of infected rabbits at the Pasteur Institute and developed with Pasteur’s colleague, Émile Roux. Its first use on a human subject was not without risk for Pasteur, as when he treated the nine-year-old Joseph Meister (1885), who had been attacked by an infected dog, he was not a licensed physician and therefore could have faced prosecution.


‘Hydrophobia’: Vanity Fair print of Louis Pasteur by Théobold Chartran, 1887 (ref. VF/29 © The Royal Society)


The Society emphasised their particular recognition of Pasteur’s services in carrying out ‘so remarkable an extension of that “natural knowledge” which the Society was founded to develop’. To formalise this approval, they appointed the Officers of the Society, Sir James Paget, Sir Joseph Lister, Sir Henry Roscoe and Professor Edwin Ray Lankester, to be their representatives at Mansion House. In providing the opportunity to show the public’s appreciation of Pasteur’s discoveries, Stokes states that the Mayor was giving aid to the progress of science and ‘the abatement of suffering and disease’.

The Society’s interest drew on its prior associations with Pasteur, a Foreign Member since 1869, and the recipient of the Rumford Medal in 1856 and the Copley Medal in 1874. Indeed, earlier in 1889, arrangements were being made for Dr Émile Roux to deliver that year’s Croonian Lecture, accompanied by Pasteur himself, on the work of the Institut in preventative inoculation. Although ill-health prevented Pasteur’s attendance, we can see the high esteem in which he was held.

Donations to the fund came from the Council of the Royal Society and individual Fellows, including Francis Darwin. Subsequent correspondence shows the Assistant Secretary, Herbert Rix, regularly confirming receipt of the donations of individual Fellows and chasing promised sums which failed to materialise. It is, however, only when we look at the reception of these developments in England that the need for this enthusiastic support becomes clear:

‘In 1889, as English critics became increasingly shrill in opposition to a proposed anti-rabies institution in London… T. H. Huxley sallied forth to excoriate them…for Huxley and other[s]…Pasteur’s treatment for rabies offered powerful new evidence  of the therapeutic utility of an ascendant “scientific” medicine…’

(Geison, Gerald L. ‘The Private Science of Louis Pasteur’ (1995), p218-219)

Amongst the Royal Society’s tracts and printed books, we find further fascinating insights into the development of the scientific understanding of rabies which preceded Pasteur’s discovery.

Robert Hamilton outlines various remedies which the medical profession had explored in ‘Remarks on Hydrophobia…’ (1798). Of the timeline of infection, he remarks: ‘The disease divides itself into two stages; the first from commencement to the symptom Hydrophobia; the second from this to death. During the latter no cure has ever been made…’ The importance of Pasteur’s focus on vaccines is brought into sharp focus here.

In another such example, a clinical lecture delivered by T.J. Pettigrew at Charing Cross Hospital in 1834 outlines the case of George Grindley from Pimlico, tracing the infection back to a fight between a ‘strange’ cat and Grindley’s dog. He reflects that the injection of tobacco as a potential treatment had not been given a ‘fair trial’ in a previous case.

And so there we have it – from Neapolitan ice cream cones to the celebration of a breakthrough in the area of vaccines, all found between the covers of the Royal Society’s New Letter Books.


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