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The Pink Humanist September 2012 issue features an account of the role played in the formation of the UK Royal Society by gay men of learning in the 17th century, by Mark Govier.
In the centenary year of the birth of Alan Turing, who became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951, but was so viciously punished with chemical castration in 1952, now is surely the time to acknowledge, recognise and finally celebrate the vast contribution made to science by gay men, says MARK GOVIER
Almost everyone has heard of the Royal Society, perhaps the most famous organisation in the history of science. It was founded in 1660, has had gay Sir Isaac Newton as President, and continues on to this very day.
The initials FRS, meaning Fellow of the Royal Society, are very much a part of British history, with the Royal coming directly from the patronage of the Royal Family. The monarchy has — generally, but not always — been happy to do this. Current Royal Fellows include Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, and Prince William.
However, as will be revealed in this article, the Royal Society is actually the brainchild and creation of some very clever and forward thinking 17th century gays. It will disclose that its very philosophy and concept, its execution and delivery were made by men who, with little dispute, were gay. Unsurprisingly, some at the Royal Society do not think this is a suitable matter to be brought up. It’s own historical journal recently stated the “proposed topic is unlikely to make an appropriate subject…” But, as will be shown, without the input of gays, it is highly unlikely there would have been such a thing as the Royal Society.
The gay inspirer: Sir Francis Bacon
Our story begins with Sir Francis Bacon, aka Lord Verulam. As is well known, Bacon was a gay government man, from a wealthy background, who rose to the high position of Lord Chancellor, before falling from grace – after being convicted for accepting bribes. This was in the first quarter of the 17th century, when James I was king of England, and Scotland. As historian Randolph Trumbach states in his article ‘Renaissance Sodomy’, James I treated his favourites – such as the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Somerset – ‘like ladies’. All of which is to say that the king was gay, along with others at Court. There were drastic penalties for sodomy at the time, but these were very, very seldom enacted, especially at this level of society. Bacon, despite being a government man, had also become a profound philosopher of science, spending much time composing revolutionary texts such as ‘The Advancement of Learning’, ‘Novum Organon’ (New Logic) and ‘Instauratio Magna’ (Great Restoration). Bacon attacked the old Greek and medieval forms of science and logic taught at the 2 English universities. Instead heargued for a new system of ‘natural philosophy’, one based on inductive logic, experiment, and having direct practical benefits for people. In his later days, he composed ‘A New Atlantis’’, a utopian novella portraying an idealised society with a huge, government funded academy of science at its centre. There is but an extremely short mention of no gay love, and one must assume this was perhaps for practical reasons, for instance to cover himself. He died in 1626.
Such was the power of Bacon’s philosophical writings they became the spirit and inspiration behind the formation of the Royal Society. This is borne out in a number of ways. Firstly, the Society, in its own 20th century- publication ‘Record of the Royal Society’ (1912) states its formation is ‘one of the earliest practical fruits of the philosophical labours of Francis Bacon…’ The requiem goes on for a number of pages, with statements such as ‘Novum Organon’ led men to pry with eager enthusiasm into every department of Nature’, and Bacon’s ‘great aim was to enforce the patient investigation of Nature…’, Then there is the ‘The History of the Royal Society’, composed by Thomas Sprat in 1667, under the tutelage of gay priest John Wilkins, of which more will be said. The cover contains an image of Royal patron Charles II. He is sitting between the Society’s then president, and Francis Bacon, who is pointing the way forwards. There is no doubt that the Royal Society — despite the organisation’s current reluctance – has a deep historical connection with this gay philosopher. Had there been no Francis Bacon, composing his works of scientific inspiration, pointing the way forwards, it is questionable whether there would have been a Royal Society.
Dr John Wilkins
“By the middle of the 17th century there were a number of learned men to whom the new or experimental philosophy appealed strongly,and Bacon in his writings had set before them in an attractive and convincing form the possibilities which it offered…”
This is a quote from the Royal Society’s own historian, Sir Henry Lyons FRS, in 1944
We now move to the period before the triumphant return of Charles II to England in 1660. Here we encounter Dr John Wilkins, a gay preacher and man of science. Born in 1614, Wilkins founded an important scientific club in London in the mid 1640s. It sometimes met in Gresham College, which later became the home of the Royal Society. “Our business,” says John Wallis, a member, “was to discourse and consider of philosophical enquiries and such as a related thereunto: physick, anatomy, geometry, astronomy, navigation, staticks, magneticks, mechanicks, and natural experiments…”
Wilkins moved to Oxford in 1648 to take up his position as warden of Wadham College, and so the London meetings lapsed. Being ever active, he started a new scientific club, the Philosophical Society of Oxford. Of special mention here is Christopher Wren, later FRS and architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, who Wilkins took under his wing. Robert Boyle, of which much has yet to be said, called it “the invisible college”.
Wilkins’ Society performed a pivotal role during the dark period between the execution of Charles l and the return of Charles ll, Though not a great scientist himself, Wilkins was a great organiser and inspirer of science, continuing the project of Bacon during these difficult times. The Oxford Society acted as the scientific heart of England, and Wilkins introduced and mentored a host of talented young men, some of whom became some of the leading lights of the newexperimental science.
In 1656, aged 42, he married the 62-yearold sister of Oliver Cromwell. This was for reasons that had nothing to do with either love or sex, but a great deal to do with politics. In fact, one historian clocks Wilkins departing immediately his wedding was over, to visit some men. When Charles ll returned, Wilkins and many others were ejected from clerical and university positions. He returned to London and continued his preaching. He was present — along with others fromthe Oxford Society — at the famous meeting at Gresham College on November 28, 1660, which saw the beginnings of the Royal Society. Though unconnected to the king, Wilkins played a vital role in the organisation’s formation. He acted as temporary president, sat on its governing council, acted as a secretary, raised money, and attended meetings frequently. He was appointed Bishop of Chester in 1668, but continued aiding the Society. Wilkins died in 1672.
Had there been no John Wilkins, it is highly unlikely there would have been something like the Oxford Philosophical Society, let alone a Royal Society. The matter of his gay sexuality was raised with a noted expert, who confirmed the view expressed here.
Sir Robert Moray
Gay Scotsman Sir Robert Moray is considered the man, above any other, most responsible for creating the Royal Society. In fact, the Society’s Anniversary Meeting, where its presidents and officers are elected, has always been held on St Andrews Day, the 30th November, as a mark of respect for Moray. Though not strictly a man of science, being far more a man of the world with a serious interest, heknew its value and did whatever he could to promote it. Moray was born in 1608 of a wealthy family in Perthshire. He was for many years a soldier, and a suspected spy, for the French. The Dictionary of National Biography suggests he may have even attended some of the scientific meetings in London organised by Wilkins. Moray led what can only be described as an interesting life. He is recorded trying to convince Charles I to dress in women’s clothes, to assist the king’s escape. This was ignored, and the king was eventualy beheaded. By 1650, and somewhat tired of war, Moray returned to Scotland, and became embroiled in politics. He was briefly married, but when his wife soon died, he did not repeat the matter. It is a fact, even in our own times, that some gay men — especially in politics — marry to assist their careers. Moray is recorded by one source as being “a single man, an abhorrer of women …”
Moray spent time with the exiled Charles ll on the Continent. A positive relationship developed, and it is this that eventually led to the creation of the Royal Society. He also practiced chemistry and alchemy while there. On his return to London in late 1660, Moray linked up with the men of science at Gresham. He was present at the famous November 28 meeting, and it was he who took the proposal to establish what became the Royal Society before the King. Charles ll quickly agreed. Moray had a wide correspondence, and was at the front of negotiations that led to the Royal Charter of Incorporation in 1662, Royal patronage, and the second Charter in 1663. He was very heavily involved in the running of the Society. As Lyons says, “Moray was one of the earliest and most active members of the Royal Society which … benefitted greatly by the free access to the king…” The great Dutch scientist Christian Huygens went so far as to describe this gay courtier, and former soldier, as the “soul” of the Royal Society. Moray died in 1673.
The Honorable Robert Boyle
Unlike Moray and Wilkins, Robert Boyle was not an instigator of the creation of the Royal Society, but at the start, he was the best of its scientists, and the most obvious gay. Born into great wealth in Ireland in 1627, lie went to Eton aged 8, and later studied and toured the Continent. Around the age of 14, based on Boyle’s own recollections, he was seduced by adult males in Florence. As Brett Kafr suggests in his 1999 article for the British Journal for the History of .Science, the experience drove Boyle back into himself, to the life of a recluse obsessed with religion, science and alchemy. Despite the fact that Boyle’s homosexuality is well known amongst academics, nothing is said about this in the long piece in the Dictionary of National Biography. The matter of Boyle’s sexualitywas raised with a noted expert, who again confirmed the view expressed here: he was gay.
In this matter, Boyle pre-dates, and indeed anticipates to some extent, Sir Isaac Newton, the Royal Society’s greatest ever Fellow, and its President from 1703-1727. Like Boyle, Newton was gay, though it is doubtful if heactually consummated this with anyone.
Unlike Boyle, Newton was not born into great wealth, was treated somewhat harshly by his mother who sent him to Trinity College at Cambridge as a lowly “sizar”, that is someone who had to perform menial services for other students. His patron there was Sir Isaac Barrow, FRS, a single mathematician and preacher, who may himself have been gay.
Newton ended up spending some 20 years as an academic, sharing a room with another man, and — like Boyle — practicing science, alchemy and religion. Following the success of his master work Principia Mathematica came to live in London. His 1693 mental breakdown has often been attributed to the break up with a young Swiss mathematician, with whom he had formed a gay, though probably platonic, relationship.
Some historians may argue that Newton was not gay, that he was one of the many single heterosexual men at the time. However, this is most likely a reflection of their own inclinations, and possibly — in some cases — prejudices.
As it now stands, Newton was perhaps the only single gay man to have ever held the position of President of the Royal Society. Interestingly, the monarchy declined to act as patrons to the Society until Newton died. This was because he omitted to take the two Anglican religious oaths imposed on Society presidents and vice-presidents since 1669.
Boyle moved to Oxford in the mid 1650s to be with John Wilkins, and the Philosophical Society, and his scientific prowess grew remarkably. When Wilkins went to Cambridge in 1659, Philosophical Society meetings moved to Boyle’s house. At Restoration he was able to take his place at the new Royal Society, as one of its leading men. He even gave the Society his talented assistant, the great scientist Robert Hooke, who himself was not gay.
Boyle performed a great many experiments, and wrote a number of highly influential books on the results of his own experimental science. He also wrote books on religion, and — like Newton — was perhaps more interested in this at times than in science. Boyle lived in Oxford until 1668, then moved to London to live with his sister, Lady Ranelagh, on a permanent basis. He regularly attended Society meetings, tendered experiments, and inspired many with his writings and words. He had a stroke in 1670, and from that time on lived a more sheltered and private life. In 1680 he was elected Society President, but opted out saying he did not agree with taking the two religious oaths, again rather like Newton. With further health problems, Boyle further retreated, and when his sister died in 1691, Boyle died but a week later.
As has been shown, the most notable scientific organisation in Britain’s history was formed by gay men. At the start, there was Francis Bacon, whose philosophy acted as the inspiration for men of science. Next, was Dr John Wilkins, who practiced experimental science, followed Bacon’s lead, and cultivated the scientific talents of many young men. With the aid of Sir Robert Moray, the Scottish courtier and soldier, a loose group of scientifically inclined men was transformed into the highly organised Royal Society, with Robert Boyle leading the way in its first decade. The Society soon became internationally esteemed, due to Sir Isaac Newton, and his long presidency.
To argue, as the Royal Society does, that its own gay roots are not an “appropriate subject” for historical research is nonsense. The gay connection goes back to the beginnings of the 17th century. In the centenary year of the birth of Alan Turing, the man who became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1951, but was so viciously punished with chemical castration in 1952, surely it is about time that the vast contribution to science by gays starts to be acknowledged, recognised, and finally celebrated.
Sources include: Archives of the Royal Society; Record of the Royal Society; Dictionary of National Biography; Henry Lyons, History of the Royal Society; Matt Cook(Ed) A Gay History of Britain; and John Gribbin, The Fellowship.