After graduating in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, Desmond King-Hele began 40 years working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. There, he developed the mathematical theory of Earth satellite orbits. By analysing actual satellite orbits, he led the world in determining more accurately the shape of the Earth and the properties of its upper atmosphere. This pioneering work earned him numerous awards, including the Royal Society Bakerian Lecture.
Desmond has worked mainly on literary and historical subjects. Since his 1960 study of the poet Shelley, he has focused on the life and work of Erasmus Darwin, and his many mechanical inventions. Desmond has written the standard biography of Darwin, edited a 685-page collection of his letters and, 2014, published a book covering his role in biological evolution.
At the Society, Desmond was active as the chairman of many committees; for ten years he was Chairman of the British National Committee for the History of Science, and for seven years he was Editor of the Royal Society journal, Notes and Records.