You can get archival treasures in the dullest of wrappings. I recently opened an undistinguished and frankly scuffed-looking ledger marked “Foreign Members” expecting to find a simple list of names and maybe a record of subscriptions. But it turned out to be the suggestions book for candidates to the international Fellowship of the Royal Society, kept for almost a century. That sounds pretty ordinary too, until you begin to look more closely.
Opening in 1879, the book of nominations for Foreign Members (MS/719) starts with a recommendation for the French geologist Auguste Dubree (1814-1896). Next to the name, in red, is “Elected 1881”. This volume was intended to gather the original citation records for all international scientists elected to the Royal Society, therefore. These would be written by proposers as they flitted through the Society’s headquarters (Burlington House in those days). Leafing through quickly, I could spot the signatures of Ray Lankester, John Tyndall, Michael Foster and the Lords Lister, Rayleigh, Kelvin and Rutherford – quite a collection of scientific brass.
So who would be the best-known Foreign Member in the book? No prizes, I turned straight to 1921 and there was Albert Einstein, in his Nobel Prize year, nominated by Sir James Jeans. In fact, Jeans managed to trump pretty much everyone by suggesting Einstein, Niels Bohr and Max Planck in quick succession.
It’s really quite moving to see brief summaries of great lives jotted down in this way. Most often, Fellows composed matter-of-fact descriptions, but a few are mini-essays. Charles Scott Sherrington’s strength of feeling shows in over a page devoted to the physiologist and expert on colour perception, Ewald Hering (1834-1918). Elsewhere, a single sentence does the job: “Prof. S. Freud Berggasse 19, Vienna. Inventor & chief worker in psychoanalysis.”