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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown

Gresham College

Gresham College in Bishopsgate was (with the exception of a brief interval at Arundel House) the meeting place of The Royal Society, which began as an informal group called the Invisible College. At the meeting of 28 November, 1660, it was proposed that a college be founded for "physico-mathematical" learning. On 15 July, 1662, the group was incorporated by charter as The Royal Society and was provided with a silver mace by Charles II, who took a great interest in the Society's various experiments. (It was the job of the curator, Robert Hooke, to furnish the society with three or four experiments every time they met.) Sir Robert Moray, together with Sir Paul Neile, a Gentleman Usher to the King, were used as a conduit for the King's messages and enquiries to the Society.

Moray reported such questions of the king's as: why sensitive plants contracted to the touch, and why ant's eggs were sometimes larger than the insect itself. Moray produced a discourse on coffee written by Dr Goddard at the king's command; he also reported an experiment of the King's own, keeping a sturgeon in fresh water in St. James's Park. Charles made gifts of curios to the Society, and after his interest had begun to wane, he continued to send venison for its anniversary dinners.

The Society's fellows included some of the most illustrious names of the Restoration era: Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, John Dryden, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys.

Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle - commonly referred to as "Mad Madge" -, was the only woman ever permitted to attend a meeting of the Royal Society during the Restoration era, though she only came once - as a guest, not a member. An exception was probably made in her case as she was the author of several scientific treatises, including: Are The Stars Blazing Jellies? Why Are Musicians Mad? and What Fills Our Heads With Fairies?

The society's inquiries covered a broad range of subjects, everything from mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and agriculture, to trade, the weather, ship-building, and monsters.

The transfusion of blood was another subject of much fascination to the society's fellows. Among the questions asked were: "If a dog has blood transfused from another, will it take on the other's characteristics, i.e. colour of fur, temperament? If a small dog is transfused by a large one, will it grow bigger? Will it know the other dog's master? The other dog's tricks?"

Pepys diary, 22 January 1666:

primrose hill the tower london bridge fire islington start of tour home

(c) 1996 Molly Brown