Queer Fellows

July 8, 2014

Mark Govier asks why the Royal Society does not acknowledge its own gay founders.

Royal Society

Following the recent posthumous Royal Pardon of computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing, who became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951 but was punished with chemical castration in 1952, Mark Govier says it’s time to recognise and celebrate the vast contribution made to science by gay men, and questions why the Royal Society is still reluctant to acknowledge its own gay founders and scientific pioneers.

Almost everyone has heard of the Royal Society, the Fellowship of renowned scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering and medicine. What most people don’t know, and it’s a well kept secret, is that the Royal Society, founded in 1660, was the creation of some very clever 17th century gay men. Bizarrely, the Royal Society thinks it is ‘inappropriate’ to recognise this, let alone discuss it, but without the input of these gay men it would never have existed.

Our story begins early in the 17th century, with that famous gay, Sir Francis Bacon. He rose to the position of Lord Chancellor before falling from grace during the reign of King James I, who, as is well known, was married but treated his favourite boys ‘like ladies’. There were drastic penalties for sodomy at the time, though these were seldom enacted, especially at this level of society. Bacon was a great philosopher of science and attacked its old medieval forms which were taught at English universities, arguing for a system of ‘natural philosophy’, one having direct benefits for people. Before Bacon died in 1626, he wrote A New Atlantis, a utopian novella of an ideal society run by a government-funded academy of science. His writings became the inspiration behind the formation of the Royal Society. Without Francis Bacon there would not have been a Royal Society, something the organisation itself acknowledges.

Dr John Wilkins

Moving on to the 1640s, Dr John Wilkins, a gay man, a preacher, and a promoter of science, founded an important scientific club in London. In 1648 he moved to Oxford University to become warden of Wadham College and started a new scientific club, the Philosophical Society of Oxford. This performed an important scientific role until the return of Charles II. Wilkins was a great inspirer of science, continuing the project of Bacon during these difficult times.

The Oxford Society acted as the scientific heart of England and Wilkins introduced and mentored a host of talented young men, some of whom became leading lights of the new experimental science. In 1656, aged 42, he married the 62-year-old sister of Oliver Cromwell, for political reasons. Wilkins was clocked departing immediately after the wedding, to visit some men. He attended the famous meeting at Gresham College in London in November 1660, which saw the start of what became the Royal Society.

Before he died in 1672, he played a vital role in the organisation’s formation, sitting on its governing council and raising money. Without John Wilkins, there would have never been an Oxford Philosophical Society, let alone a Royal Society.

Sir Robert Moray, a gay Scotsman, is most responsible for creating the Royal Society. Though not strictly a man of science, he knew its value and did what he could to promote it. Moray was born in 1608 and was for many years an unmarried soldier. He may have even attended some of the early scientific meetings in London organised by Wilkins. He tried to convince Charles I to dress in women’s clothes, to assist the King’s escape. This was rejected, and Charles I was eventually beheaded. By 1650, Moray returned to Scotland and was briefly married. His wife died soon after and he did not wed again. Then, as now, some gay men, especially in politics, married to assist their careers. Moray is recorded as being ‘a single man, an abhorrer of women’. After spending time with the exiled Charles II, he returned to London late 1660, and was present at the November 1660 meeting at Gresham College. It was Moray who took the proposal to establish the Royal Society to Charles II. It was Moray who led negotiations that gained the Royal Society its royal patronage. Until his death in 1673, he was heavily involved in the running of the society. He was known as the ‘soul’ of the Royal Society.

Robert Boyle

Next we meet the gay Robert Boyle, the best of the early Royal Society’s scientists. Born into great wealth in Ireland in 1627, he went to Eton aged eight, and later studied and toured the continent. While in Florance, around the age of 14, he was seduced by adult males. This experience drove Boyle into the life of a recluse obsessed with religion, science, and alchemy. He moved to Oxford in the mid 1650s to join Dr John Wilkins and his Oxford Philosophical Society. Boyle performed a great many experiments, and wrote a number of highly influential books on the results. He lived in Oxford until 1668, then moved to London to live with his sister. He regularly attended society meetings, wrote scientific texts, and performed experiments. In 1680 he was elected Royal Society president, but opted out as he didn’t agree with taking the two Anglican religious oaths for the position. He died a week after his sister in 1691.

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

Gay Sir Isaac Newton was, and arguably is, the Royal Society’s greatest ever member and was its president from 1703–1727. Newton was sent to Cambridge by his mother without money, so had to perform menial services for other students. For over 20 years, he stayed there as an academic, contentedly sharing a room with another man, practicing science, alchemy and religion. Following the success of his master work Principia Mathematica he came to live in London. Here he suffered a period of acute mental illness due to his break up with a young man. Boyle aside, Newton is the only single gay man to have held the position of president of the Royal Society.

The monarchy only resumed its patronage of the organisation after Newton died in 1727, and he was immediately replaced by Sir Hans Sloane, a real married man. This unofficial ‘married only’ status for the top position in British science still persists, despite there being no legal basis for it. The reality is, the most notable scientific organisation in Britain’s history was formed by gay men. Since this time, there have been many gay ‘Fellows’, though of course, unofficially. (Alan Turning is the only exception, thanks to media C4). To continue to argue, as the Royal Society still does, that its own gay roots are not an ‘appropriate subject’ is nonsense.

Sources include:

Archives of the Royal Society; Record of the Royal Society; Dictionary of National Biography; Henry Lyons, History of the Royal Society; Matt Cook (Ed) A Gay History of Britain; and John Gribbin, The Fellowship.