Foundation & Early Years

In the early nineteenth century, experimental physiology was virtually non-existent in Britain though it flourished in France and Germany. Medical students were largely taught by anatomists, surgeons and physicians. Things started to change in 1836 with the appointment of William Sharpey to a Chair of General Anatomy and Physiology at University College London. Classes in practical physiology were given by a physician George Harley until Michael Foster took over in 1867. Such classes then spread to other London medical schools and, in 1870, to Cambridge when Trinity College appointed Foster Praelector of Physiology.


Foundation of The Physiological Society

It was the dinners, with discussion of ‘business’, that constituted the Meetings (Scientific Meetings started in 1880). Scientific communications and demonstrations became more numerous from the 1880s but the dinners remained a pivotal part of each meeting reflecting The Society’s birth as a Dining Club. The Constitution allowed for the election of ‘Men of distinction in science as Honorary Members’; the first two, Charles Darwin and William Sharpey were elected almost at the birth of The Society. Women were admitted as members in 1915, not without controversy.  

In 1883 Foster was elected to the newly established University Chair in Physiology; in the same year John Burdon Sanderson, who had succeeded Foster at UCL, was appointed to the Waynflete Chair in Oxford. In Scotland, Argyll Robertson was teaching practical physiology in Edinburgh where Hughes Bennett had, in 1842, established the first histology course in Britain. Foster founded the Journal of Physiology in 1878 with financial backing from AG Dew-Smith, a founder member of The Society.

The burgeoning of practical physiology involving work on living animals was paralleled by the emergence of those opposed to such experiments. A Royal Commission of Enquiry into Vivisection was set up in 1875. It included TH Huxley the zoologist and the surgeon JE Erichsen, both supporters of experimental physiology. The Commission recommended that work on living vertebrates be governed by an Act of Parliament that required experimenters to be licensed by the Home Secretary, special conditions being imposed for certain types of experiments. Experimental physiologists recognised the need to have a say in any proposals that might unjustifiably hinder progress. It was this need that led to the formation of The Physiological Society in 1876.

At a dinner at Burdon Sanderson’s house on 31 March 1876, nineteen men, all with an interest in physiology, met to discuss the Commission's proposals and the formation of ‘an association for mutual benefit and protection’. A committee was formed, a constitution drafted and an inaugural dinner held on 26 May. Clause 1 stated that ‘This Society is called “The Physiological Society”’. (Absence of any geographical appellation attracts wry comments from Societies in other parts of the world.)

Histories of The Society

In 1927, Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer published his history of The Society, documenting its first 50 years. You can download this document in two parts from the Journal of Physiology site at PubMed Central as a pdf.

History of The Physiological Society during its First Fifty Years, 1876-1926, Part 1

History of The Physiological Society during its First Fifty Years, 1876-1926, Part 2

 A brief history of the second 50 years, 1926 to 1976, was written by William Bynum, based on a lengthier, unfinished history by H P Gilding. The shorter article was published as A short history of The Physiological Society in the Journal of Physiology and is available to read online.