If it hadn’t been for X there wouldn’t be a Y.

I’m writing this post with some reluctance. Normally I’m a strong supporter of investigating the role of homosexuals in the history of science in order to further the cause of homosexual equality but a recent article, The secret gay history of the Royal Society, in Gay Star News on just this topic was so abysmal that I can’t just ignore it and feel obliged to shred it in my usual charming manner. The article, which purports to show that the founding of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century was the result of gay activism, offends my historical sensibilities in two different ways.

Firstly the author of the article claims that various historical figures associated with the early Royal society were gay without giving any evidence or justification for his claims. I’m not saying that the gentlemen in question were not gay but if one is making such a strong claim concerning well-known historical figures then, as a historian, one is obligated to substantiate those claims. Although I have studied the history of seventeenth century science most of my life I have only come across a serious suggestion of homosexuality for one of the savants discussed in the piece, Isaac Newton. In Newton’s case there is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence that he might have been homosexual but something like a definite proof doesn’t exist. I personally think that the evidence suffices to make the claim that Newton was probably homosexual but I can understand other historians who say that this is not the case. If the author is going to label, as he does, Francis Bacon, John Wilkins, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and others gay then he need to provide more evidence to support his claim than just his own say so.

My second objection to the argumentation of the article has nothing to do with homosexuality per se but with a particular historical trope that the author uses and that I think should, along with other tropes that I have pilloried in the past, be banned completely from all historical discourses. The author writes:

Before he [Francis Bacon[1]] died in 1626, he wrote ‘A New Atlantis’, a utopian novella describing an ideal society run by a government-funded academy of science. These writings became the inspiration behind the formation of the Royal Society. Had there been no Francis Bacon, it is questionable whether there would have been a Royal Society. [my emphasis]


Next, we move to the 1640s, and meet Dr John Wilkins. He was a gay preacher, a promoter of science who founded an important scientific club in London. In 1648 he moved to Oxford University to become warden of a college, and started a new scientific club, the Philosophical Society of Oxford. This performed an important scientific role – until return of Charles II.


He attended the famous meeting in London in November 1660, which saw the start of what became the Royal Society. Before he died in 1672, he played a vital role in the organization’s formation, sitting on its governing council, raising money and so on. Had there been no John Wilkins, there would have never been an Oxford Philosophical Society, let alone a Royal Society. [my emphasis]

Both of the emphasised phrases are of the type used in the title of this post, “if it hadn’t been for X there wouldn’t be a Y”. This is unfortunately a construction that occurs often when people write about the history of science and is to put it mildly total rubbish. It is of course a variation on the great scientists or lone heroes form of history of science and like them should never raise it ugly head. This particular trope is easily shown to be nonsense by the frequent occurrence of multiple discovery or invention in the history of science and technology as well as the not infrequent occurrence of things being discovered, becoming lost and then being rediscovered by somebody else at a later date. No scientist in the history of science has ever been unique or indispensible; it only seems like that with blinkered hindsight.

A classic example of this error concerns Galileo and the telescope. One can find in many, many accounts something along the lines of, it took Galileo’s single genius to recognise that the telescope could be used for astronomical observation and his technical genius to turn this child’s plaything into a scientific instrument.

There were in fact at least twelve other astronomers who acquired or constructed telescopes as astronomical instruments independently of Galileo and who were making observations at the same time as he was. Thomas Harriot, certainly, and Simon Marius, probably, even before Galileo himself. All of Galileo’s observational discoveries where made independently by others, often by more than one other observer. Galileo was admittedly the best of these early observers but his single genius lay in recognising that if he published his discoveries first he could cash in on the ensuing fame, which as we all know he did.

Returning to the founding of the Royal Society let us examine more closely the claims made above. Bacon’s New Atlantis was indeed an inspiration for many of the initial enthusiasts who came together in the early years of the Royal Society, a fact that led to tension between the Baconian and non-Baconian fractions on a number of occasions particularly during the Presidency of Isaac Newton, a decidedly non-Baconian. However to claim that without New Atlantis there would have been no Royal Society is a major historical misrepresentation.

New Atlantis was one of three widely read contemporary utopias integrating elements of the new scientific ethos in the early 17th century; the other two were Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun and Johannes Valentinus Andeae Description of the Republic of Christianopolis. Andreae was, like Kepler, a student of Michael Maestlin. Campanella belonged in his youth to the circle of Giambattista della Porta where he also met Galileo whom he would defend in writing, probably to his detriment in 1616. Campanella was like Bacon strongly influenced by the Renaissance empirical philosopher Bernadino Telesio.

The three early seventeenth century works of Campanella, Andeae and Bacon are often treated together as a utopia sub-genre. If a utopia was necessary to the foundation of the Royal Society there were alternatives to Bacon.

Utopian literature wasn’t the only source of inspiration however. The epistemological and pedagogical theories of the Czech educational reformer Comenius who was strongly represented in England by his disciple, the German, Samuel Hartlib were also a significant influence in seventeenth century. The so-called Hartlib Circle played a central role in the foundation of the Royal Society.

Lastly it should not be forgotten that academic and scientific societies were very much en vogue in the early seventeenth century throughout Europe.  In Italy, della Porta founded the Accademia dei Segreti, which included at sometime both Galileo and Campenella amongst its members, around 1580.  Prince Cesi established the Accademia dei Licei in 1603, which would later take up both Galileo and della Porta in its ranks. The Accademia del Cimento was founded by Borelli and Viviani in 1657. In Germany the Leopoldina, which still exists today, was founded in 1652. Also one should not forget that the French Académie des Sciences was establish in 1666, almost at the same time as the Royal Society. In fact there was a bit of a dispute between the two august bodies, as to who had stolen the idea from the other.

I think one can very safely say that something resembling the Royal Society would have been established in London in the seventeenth century with or without the inspiration of Bacon’s New Atlantis.

Turning to the other example of “if it hadn’t been for X there wouldn’t be a Y” we have John Wilkins and The Oxford Philosophical Society. In fact in the period preceding the establishment of the Royal Society there were various groups of like-minded investigators of nature meeting on a regular or semi-regular basis in London and Oxford who are variously credited with being the foundation stones on which the Royal Society was built. The Hartlib Circle I mentioned above was one of them. There is much discussion amongst historians as to which was the most influential. There is even a very interesting paper by Francis R. Johnson, Gresham College: Precursor of the Royal Society published in 1940 that outlines the history of all such groups that used Gresham College as a meeting place going back to its foundations in the late sixteenth century. There was nothing special about the Oxford Philosophical Society it was just one of the bunch.

I’m a big fan of John Wilkins and yes he certainly played a central role in the early Royal Society but it would be a gross exaggeration to claim that without him there would have been no Royal Society. He was one of the two original secretaries but it was his fellow secretary Henry Oldenburg who together with the demonstrator Robert Hooke who formed the machine room of the early Society and kept it running. Even these two cannot be considered indispensible as there were other active members such as Christopher Wren who also made substantial contributions.

I shall close this already over long post with one last criticism of the article. In the section on Newton’s Presidency our intrepid gay historian makes the following quite extraordinary claim:

Newton is the only single gay man to have held the position of president of the Royal Society. The monarchy only resumed its patronage of the organization after Newton died, [my emphasis] when he was replaced by Sir Hans Sloane, a married man.

Newton was president of the Royal Society from 1703 until his death in 1727; from 1703 till 1714 England was ruled by Queen Anne and from 1714 till 1727 by King George I. Neither of them withdrew royal patronage from the Royal Society at anytime. Both of them respected and revered Newton. Queen Anne knighted Newton in 1705. George famously left Leibniz, his librarian, to stew in Hanover when he became King of England so as not to offend the great Newton with whom Leibniz was at loggerheads. Newton was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey when he died. To suggest that he was discriminated against by the monarchy because he was gay is complete rubbish.

I’m sure that my friend Felicity Henderson (@felicityhen) who is a historian of science in residence at the Royal Society will turn up in the comments to correct all the errors I have made in the early history of the Royal Society but that’s how real historians learn. The author of the piece, I have criticised here, has a lot to learn.

[1] I started writing this post several days ago but by a strange coincidence Francis Bacon died 9 April 1626.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton, Renaissance Science

13 responses to “If it hadn’t been for X there wouldn’t be a Y.

  1. Michael Weiss

    Who was it who said that “arguably” is, 99% of the time, used to introduce something false?

    Oh wait, the fellow wrote “it is questionable”.

    Slightly more seriously, I have the impression that real historians fight shy of counter-factual conditionals in general.

    Though I do like Mark Twain’s example — more or less, If Walter Scott hadn’t written any novels, then there wouldn’t have been any American Civil War.

    (OK, his actual statement was a bit more cautious. I saw the above paraphrase in a logic textbook, a propos the difference between material and counter-factual conditionals.)

  2. I should just say that I am not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  3. Mike Jacovides

    Aubrey says that Bacon was gay in Brief Lives. Surely that counts as a serious suggestion.

    • Thony C

      Of course it counts as a serious suggestion and could indeed should have been quoted by the author of the article to support his claim.

  4. Jeb

    That’s funny I have just been reading Sir Robert Murray, I sometimes wonder if personal tragedy was one personal factor among a range of other more demonstrable reasons in the development of neo- stoic thought that seems to creep into the tone of Murray and others at times. Although I don’t think I will attempt to get a historical thesis out of that line of speculation.

  5. Jeb

    p.s by personal tragedy I am referring to bereavement. Not uncommon circumstance for many in the period to outlive wives and children.

  6. Aubrey on Bacon: ‘He was a [pederast], His Ganimeds and Favourites tooke Bribes’. Of course, Aubrey reports at one remove, claiming Thomas Hobbes as his source. But yes, it ought to be cited. He was also accused, by diarist Simon D’Ewes, of ‘the most horrible and secret sin of sodomy’, in a longer rant about bribery. Perhaps the word ‘gay’ is as anachronistic here as would be the word ‘scientist’, and certainly being accused of sodomy often had a secondary purpose, if not meaning.
    As for the New Atlantis, it certainly did influence the formation of the Royal Society, though not as directly as is suggested, nor was he as influential as the poem heading the history of the RS makes out.
    As for Newton, a little bell in the back of my head says that he was considered an arch-Baconian by some … probably continental, as the bell has that flavour to it.
    More to the point, however, Sylva sylvarum, with which New Atlantis came packaged, was in many ways an object lesson in when to cite and when not – for Bacon, it was only necessary to cite by name when you were pretty sure they were wrong … ironic.

    • Although we give ourselves credit for living in an era of rhetorical excess, the fact is that 17th Century and 18th Century writers, schooled on the shameless abuse that Classic orators like Cicero routinely dished out to their enemies, set most of the existing records for scurrilous prose. That’s why, though I recalled Aubrey’s remark about Bacon when I first read this post, it didn’t seem particularly apropos. What weren’t these guys accused of in the good old days?

      Pete briefly raised a more important point. Calling somebody like Bacon or Newton a homosexual is anachronistic. Thony has often made an analogous point by objecting to calling various Renaissance figures “scientists” as if that role already existed in 1600. Homosexuality, let alone gayness, had yet to be invented in Bacon’s time. Which is not to say that sexual acts between men and men or men and boys didn’t frequently occur—if you believe contemporary sources, sodomy was like baseball in Florence, i.e., the national pastime—but it didn’t define an individual in the same way that “homosexual” would come to define men doing the same thing in later centuries. And, of course, the seriousness or frivolity of particular behaviors also varies enormously over the years: for example, it’s OK to be gay these days, but incredibly evil to be a pederast. To judge from the rather sniggering way that Aubrey refers to Bacon’s rumored pederasty, a taste for pretty boys (Ganymedes) was apparently a lesser matter, something ridiculous rather than inexcusable as it would be today—imagine somebody claiming that Jefferson was sleeping with his juvenile male slaves.

      • Mike Jacovides

        Although we give ourselves credit for living in an era of rhetorical excess, the fact is that 17th Century and 18th Century writers, schooled on the shameless abuse that Classic orators like Cicero routinely dished out to their enemies, set most of the existing records for scurrilous prose.

        I don’t think that Aubrey’s Life is an excessive rhetorical attack on Bacon. I think his “all that were great and good loved and honoured him” is supposed to be sincere.

        That’s why, though I recalled Aubrey’s remark about Bacon when I first read this post, it didn’t seem particularly apropos. What weren’t these guys accused of in the good old days?

        Are there any such remarks recorded about other early modern philosophers or natural philosophers? (This isn’t a rhetorical question, but the passage strikes me as unusual.)

  7. Isn’t it usually considered politically incorrect to even mention the sexual orientation of somebody in all sorts of contexts? Why should it suddenly be necessary to mention the sexual orientation of historical figures in a purely scientific context? Or in what context is the royal society demanded to do so?

  8. Pingback: Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster

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