Linnean Society of London

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Linnean Society of London
Formation 1788 (1788), Royal Charter 1802
Type Learned society
Purpose Natural History & Taxonomy

The Linnean Society of London is a society for the study of, and the dissemination of information concerning, natural history and taxonomy. It possesses several important biological specimen, manuscript and literature collections and publishes academic journals and books on plant and animal biology. The society also awards a number of prestigious medals and prizes for achievement. A product of the 18th century enlightenment, the society is historically important as the venue for the first public presentation of the Theory of Evolution.

The patron of the society is Queen Elizabeth II. Honorary members include the present monarchs of Japan, Emperor Akihito, and Sweden, King Carl XVI Gustaf, both of whom have active interests in natural history, and the eminent broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough.


Burlington House: the Linnean Society occupies the range to the left of the entrance arch.
The Society's premises in Burlington House seen from within the courtyard.
Darwin-Wallace medal.jpg
The library of the Linnean Society, Burlington House
Muscicapa malachura (the Southern emu-wren), a new species from New South Wales, 1798, Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, Volume 4, facing page 242

The Linnean Society was founded in 1788 by botanist Sir James Edward Smith. The society derives its name from the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, the 'father of taxonomy', who systematised biological classification through his binomial nomenclature. He was known as Carl von Linné after his ennoblement, hence the spelling Linnean, not "Linnaean". It is the oldest surviving natural history society in the world.[1] Throughout its history the society has been a non-political and non-sectarian institution, existing solely for the furtherance of natural history.[2]

The society has numbered many prominent scientists amongst its fellows. One such was the botanist Robert Brown, who was president (1849-1853); he named the cell nucleus and discovered Brownian motion.[3] In 1854 Charles Darwin was elected a fellow; he is undoubtedly the most illustrious scientist ever to appear on the membership rolls of the society.[4]

Since 1857 the Society has been based at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London; an address it shares with a number of other learned societies: the Geological Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Royal Society of Chemistry.[5]

The first public exposition of the 'Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection', arguably the greatest single leap of progress made in biology, was presented to a meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858. At this meeting a joint presentation of papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace was made, sponsored by Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell as neither author could be present.[6]

In 1904 the society experienced the novelty of electing women fellows; this followed a number of years of campaigning by the botanist Marian Farquharson. Whilst the society's council was reluctant to admit women, the fellows were much less so, with only 17% voting against the proposal. One of the first to benefit from this was Annie Lorrain Smith, a lichenologist and mycologist, formally admitted on 19 January 1905.[7]

The society's connection with evolution remained strong into the 20th century. Sir Edward Poulton, who was president 1912-1916, was a great defender of natural selection and was the first biologist to recognise the importance of frequency-dependent selection.[8][9]

The first female president of the society was Irene Manton (1973 to 1976), who pioneered the biological use of electron microscopy. Her work revealed the structure of the flagellum and cilia, which are central to many systems of cellular motility.[10][11]

Recent years have seen an increased interest within the society in issues of biodiversity conservation. This was highlighted by the inception in 2015 of an annual award, the John Spedan Lewis Medal, specifically honouring persons making significant and innovative contributions to conservation.[12]


Membership requires nomination by at least two fellows and election by a minimum of two thirds of those electors voting. Fellows may employ the post-nominal letters 'FLS'. Fellowship is open to both professional scientists and to amateur naturalists who have shown active interest in natural history and allied disciplines. Having authored relevant publications is an advantage, but not a necessity, for election. Other forms of membership exist: 'Associate', for younger persons 21 to 29 years of age, 'Student Associate', for those aged 18 to 24 years, 'Fellow honoris causa', 'Foreign', and lastly 'Honorary', the latter three types of membership are prestigious and strictly limited in number.[13][14]

Medals and prizes

The Linnean Society of London aims to promote the study of all aspects of the biological sciences, with particular emphasis on evolution, taxonomy, biodiversity, and sustainability. Through awarding medals and grants, the Society acknowledges and encourages excellence in all of these fields.[15][16]

The following medals and prizes are awarded by the Linnean Society:

  • Linnean Medal, established 1888, awarded annually to alternately a botanist or a zoologist or (as has been common since 1958) to one of each in the same year.
  • Darwin-Wallace Medal, first awarded in 1908, for major advances in evolutionary biology.
  • H. H. Bloomer Award, established 1963 from a legacy by the amateur naturalist Harry Howard Bloomer, awarded "an amateur naturalist who has made an important contribution to biological knowledge"
  • Trail-Crisp Award, established in 1966 from two previous awards - both dating to 1910, awarded "in recognition of an outstanding contribution to biological microscopy that has been published in the UK".
  • Bicentenary Medal, established 1978, on the 200th anniversary of the death of Linnaeus, "in recognition of work done by a person under the age of 40 years".
  • Jill Smythies Award, established 1986, awarded for botanical illustrations.
  • Linnean Gold Medal For services to the society - awarded in exceptional circumstances, from 1988.
  • Irene Manton Prize, established 1990, for the best dissertation in botany during an academic year.
  • Linnean Tercentenary Medal, established in 2007.
  • John C Marsden Medal, established 2012, for the best doctoral thesis in biology examined during a single academic year.
  • John Spedan Lewis Medal, established 2015, awarded to "an individual who is making a significant and innovative contribution to conservation".


Linnaeus' botanical and zoological collections were purchased in 1783 by Sir James Edward Smith, the first President of the society, and are now held in London by the society. The collections include 14,000 plants, 158 fish, 1,564 shells, 3,198 insects, 1,600 books and 3,000 letters and documents. They may be viewed by appointment.

Smith's own plant collection is also held by the Society. It has been databased by the Smith Herbarium Project at the National Museums Liverpool. 6,000 specimens have been cleaned and repaired.

Other notable holdings of the society include the notebooks and journals of Alfred Russel Wallace and the paintings of plants and animals made by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762-1829) in Nepal.[17]

In December 2014, the society's collection was added to the list of nationally significant collections in England by the Arts Council England.[18]


The Linnean Society began its extensive series of publications on 13 August 1791, when Volume I of Transactions was produced. Over the following centuries the society published a number of different journals, some of which specialised in more specific subject areas, whilst earlier publications were discontinued. Those still in publication include: the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, which has an emphasis on the evolutionary biology of all organisms, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, which focuses on plant sciences, and Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society focusing on animal systematics and evolution. The Linnean is a biannual newsletter. It contains commentary on recent activities and events, articles on history and science, and occasional biographies/obituaries of people connected to the Linnean Society; it also includes book reviews, reference material and correspondence. The society also publishes books and Synopses of the British Fauna, a series of field-guides.[19]


See also


  1. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, p. 2
  2. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, p. 148
  3. Harris, Henry (1999). The Birth of the Cell. Yale University Press. pp. 76–81.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, p. 53
  5. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, p. 51
  6. Cohen, I.B. (1985) Revolution in Science, Harvard University Press, 1985, pp. 288-289
  7. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, pp. 88-93
  8. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, p. 95
  9. Poulton, E. B. 1884. Notes upon, or suggested by, the colours, markings and protective attitudes of certain lepidopterous larvae and pupae, and of a phytophagous hymenopterous larva. Transactions of the Entomological Society of London 1884: 27–60.
  10. Preston, Reginald Dawson (1990). "Irene Manton. 17 April 1904-13 May 1988". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 35: 248. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1990.0011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Biography of Irene Manton sponsored by the Linnean Society
  12. [1]John Spedan Lewis Medal page Linnean Society website
  13. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, pp. 195, 198-202
  14. Charter and Bye-laws of the Linnean Society
  15. "The Linnean Society of London: Medals and Prizes". Retrieved 19 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, pp. 165-174
  17. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, pp. 175-181 (specimen collections) 183-188 (manuscript, illustration and publication collections)
  18. "Linnean Society Collection recognised for its national significance". 2014-12-11. Retrieved 16 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Gage A.T. and Stearn W.T. (1988) A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London, Linnean Society of London, pp. 153-164

External links

Works related to Transactions of the Linnean Society of London at Wikisource Media related to Linnean Society of London at Wikimedia Commons