The RSE was created in 1783 by Royal Charter for “the advancement of learning and useful knowledge”.
In the 18th century, Edinburgh’s intellectual climate fostered many clubs and societies. The most prestigious was the Society for the Improvement of Medical Knowledge, commonly referred to as the Medical Society of Edinburgh.
In 1737, a new, broader society – the Edinburgh Society for Improving Arts and Sciences and particularly Natural Knowledge – split from the specialist medical organisation, which then went on to become the Royal Medical Society.
It changed its name the following year to the Edinburgh Philosophical Society and transformed itself into the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783.
In 1788, it issued the first volume of its new journal, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
However, there was a split amongst members over the practical and theoretical objectives of the society. This resulted in the founding and issuing of articles from the Wernerian Society (1808–58), a parallel organisation that focused more upon natural history and scientific research. This became the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1819 – 1839).
For the first four decades of the 19th century, the RSE’s members published articles in two different journals. By the 1850s, the RSE once again unified its membership under one journal.
In the 19th century, the society contained many scientists whose ideas laid the foundation of the modern sciences. From the 20th century onward, the society functioned not only as a focal point for Scotland’s eminent scientists but also the arts and humanities.
Today, the RSE uses the diverse knowledge and expertise of its 1,600-strong Fellowship — which is drawn from the worlds of science, the arts, business and public service — to inspire young talent, engage the public on key contemporary issues, provide expertise to policymakers and influencers and promote Scotland’s interest overseas.
Founding Fellows and past Presidents
Find out more about the RSE’s beginnings and its esteemed Presidents through the years below: