Address to the Royal Commonwealth Society, Hobart on 19 May 2021
The first question I’m going to answer today, is: ‘What makes the Royal Society of Tasmania ‘Royal’ ’?
On 14 October 1843 the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, convened a meeting of 17 gentlemen at Government House (when Government House was in Macquarie St). They resolved to form a Society called ‘The Botanical and Horticultural Society of Van Diemen’s Land’. I have a facsimile of the Minutes of the first meeting here, which you might be interested to look at later.
The objects of the Society were ‘to develop the physical characteristics of the Island and illustrate its natural history and productions.’ Some of the names of the gentlemen present will be very familiar to you, such as Allport, Cotton and Milligan.
The Governor of the day was to act as President, and succeeding governors served as President until 2002 when the decision was made that the presiding Governor would be Patron of the Society, rather than President.
Governor Eardley-Wilmot reported to the Society in 1844 that Queen Victoria had graciously agreed to become Patron, and she directed the name of the Society to be changed to ‘The Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land for Horticulture, Botany and the Advancement of Science’. This name was a bit of a mouthful and in 1911 an Act of Parliament was passed to shorten the name to ‘The Royal Society of Tasmania’.
A branch of the Society was formed in Launceston in 1853. It lapsed but was reconstituted in 1921 and has continued since then, celebrating its centenary this year.
The second question I’m going to address today, is: ‘How has the Royal Society of Tasmania contributed to Tasmanian life?’
The Royal Society of Tasmania is the oldest scientific society in Australia and New Zealand, and the third oldest Royal Society in the Commonwealth.
As you all know, in the early days of the colony of Van Diemen’s Land the settlers were confronted with an alien landscape with unfamiliar vegetation, exotic animals and many unknowns. The mission of the Royal Society of Tasmania was to investigate and document the physical characteristics of the island and they did this very assiduously. Some members were gentleman farmers, while others represented a range of professions including lawyers, doctors, surveyors, government employees and leaders of the Church. It is astonishing what these people managed to achieve while holding down day jobs. They went on collecting forays for specimens, observed, recorded, wrote and discussed, sharing their findings with specialists around the world and publishing their findings in the annual journal Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. The Papers and Proceedings continue to flourish as an annual publication, and its relevance today is indicated by the number of downloads of digitised papers from the journal. Last year there were over 67,000 downloads, showing that the articles are of immense value and interest to people studying aspects of Tasmania. If you’re interested in looking at our digitised articles, go to our website, rst.org.au, and click on the Papers and Proceedings tab. The papers are first published as a hard copy volume, and are then digitised after one year.
In fact the volume of natural history specimens and artwork amassed by the Society became so great that the Society built a museum in Hobart to house the collections. This operated for decades as the Royal Society Museum. Eventually this became too much for a Society of volunteers to run, and in 1885 most of the collections were gifted to the people of Tasmania, forming the basis of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The Society reserved ownership mostly of artworks and works on paper. The very substantial colonial art collection of over 800 artworks was placed on long-term loan with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1965.
In its early years, the Society established the Colonial Gardens that later became the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. The early Minutes document donations of plants received and such minutiae as orders for bricks and nails needed for various projects. This also became too much for a Society of volunteers to run, and the Gardens passed into government ownership. The Society built up a substantial Library which is now housed in the Morris Miller Library in the University of Tasmania. The library contains thousands of valuable and historic items of books, maps and other items related in particular to the history of Tasmania, and is open for access by community members. We’ve begun a process of digitising these items to preserve these important records and make them more accessible.
Fascinating snippets of information are constantly coming to light from the library: for example, during World War Two when it was feared that Tasmania may be attacked and bombed, the Royal Society parcelled up its most significant treasures and lodged these for safe-keeping with trusted members at substantial homes away from the city centre. And at the end of the war, all of these items were carefully checked back in.
About the Society:
The place of women
You may have noticed that I said the Society was formed by a group of gentlemen, and photos of the early Royal Society of Tasmania certainly depict rows of white-bearded and black-mustachioed men. So what was the role of women?
Interestingly, unlike many learned Societies of the time, the Royal Society of Tasmania never banned women from being members or taking part in the business of the meetings. In fact, in 1843 Rule 8 of the newly-constituted Society specified that: ‘Ladies were to be admitted as Fellows ‘upon the same terms, with the same privileges and under the same regulations in all respects as gentlemen.’ This was extremely forward-thinking for its time.
Our Minutes record that a Miss Louisa Bell was nominated for membership in December 1843 and elected a Fellow in January 1844. One historian erroneously concluded that when noted illustrator and naturalist Louisa Anne Meredith was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society in 1881, it was because a woman couldn’t hold full membership of the Society. But a little digging in the records suggests that her honorary membership was due to her straitened financial circumstances at the time. Other women are mentioned periodically in meeting records, but it wasn’t until 1985 that a woman became Senior Vice-President, and in 2013 the Society elected a female President.
I’m actually only the seventh female office bearer in the 178-year history of the Society, so that’s not a great record. We’re making up for it at the moment with a female Vice-President and female Honorary Secretary. There’s a similar pattern with the awards to noted researchers that appear on the Honour Board in our RST Lecture Room; for many decades the names were all of male researchers, but in recent times outstanding female researchers have been recognised and the ratio of genders on the board is becoming more equal. Incidentally, our Honour Board was carved by noted Tasmanian artist Ellen ‘Nellie’ Payne and is worth viewing when you get the chance.
Now we come to the Northern Branch of the Society.
The Northern Branch of the Society has made an enormous contribution to the social and intellectual fabric of Northern Tasmania. The Branch made key contributions to bodies such as the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board, the Launceston Field Naturalists’ Club, the Launceston 50,000 League and the Scenery Preservation Board. The branch formed in 1853 withered away and was re-established in 1921. Present at that meeting were thirty people including the mayor, lawyers, doctors, teachers and clergymen. A Miss M. Fox M.A. is recorded as attending, and I feel she would have been a person worth meeting.
Prominent solicitor William Henty and naturalist Ronald Campbell Gunn played a key role in the formation of the Northern Branch, with Gunn contributing a vast amount of knowledge to the body of work on Tasmanian flora. The Branch is based at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, and continues to deliver a vibrant lecture program. The Northern Branch celebrates its centenary this year.
So, what does the Society do today?
Our objective since 1911 has been ‘The advancement of knowledge’, and this is what all our activities are directed towards.
We hold a monthly lecture series that is open to the community, and thanks to the COVID pandemic we had to catapult ourselves into the digital age and deliver our lectures by webinar last year. The uptake of this was very good and had the unexpected outcome of expanding our audience to people living interstate and overseas. We also instigated our own YouTube channel last year, and lectures from the North and South of the state are placed on this for public access as part of our community outreach. This has been a great success and we’ve had over 3,500 views of lectures online.
An important part of our platform is recognising and rewarding high-quality research about Tasmania, and we offer a number of awards ranging from students who have just completed their PhDs through to medals for early career, established and distinguished researchers. We also support school students through financial support for the Tasmanian Science Talent Search run by the Science Teachers’ Association, and the Science Investigation Awards run though the University of Tasmania. We also support Tasmanian students selected to represent Australia in international academic competitions; this bursary program is on hold at the moment, as due to the pandemic restrictions, such events are not being held. But we’ll resume our support for this as soon as events start up again.
In addition to publishing our annual journal, the Papers and Proceedings, the Society publishes other items from time to time, including the books you see here on the table today that aim to develop knowledge about aspects of Tasmania. And later this year we’re publishing a complete taxonomy of Tasmanian beetles, which will be an important contribution to this branch of science.
The centrepiece of the Society’s 175th anniversary celebrations was the brainchild of Royal Society Past President Professor Ross Large: the Dinosaur rEvolution exhibition held in conjunction with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the companion symposium, brought the latest information on dinosaur research to the Tasmanian community. It was very successful in terms of both community interest and revenue for the Society.
You may be aware that in February of this year, the Society delivered a formal Apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people for past mistreatment and disrespect of Aboriginal remains, culture and artefacts by the Society. Much of this maltreatment occurred in the nineteenth century when the Society ran its museum, collecting and trading Aboriginal remains as commodities rather than as human remains. Our Apology was accepted by several Tasmanian Aboriginal Elders on the day of its delivery. You can watch the Apology ceremony on our YouTube channel and view the full wording on our website. As part of our commitment to ongoing change, the Society is planning a symposium on Aboriginal culture and history for November this year.
The invitation to speak today has made me ponder future connections between the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Royal Society of Tasmania. Nearly all our events are open to community members, so please check out our website rst.org.au to see which events might interest you. And membership is open to everybody with an interest in the advancement of knowledge; I have some forms here today if anyone is interested in joining us, or knows someone who may be interested.
President, The Royal Society of Tasmania