Foundation of The Society

The Physiological Society was founded in 1876. On Friday 31st March, 19 men met at the house of John Burdon Sanderson to discuss the formation of a society for ‘promoting the advancement of physiology and facilitating the intercourse of physiologists’. The Society’s rules were agreed within a few weeks, and an inaugural dinner held soon afterwards at the Criterion restaurant.

John Burdon Sanderson

Criterion Restaurant, Piccadilly: 1871-3. Front as designed’. Thomas Verity, architect


In the same year, a Report was published by the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes. Most of Sanderson’s guests had given evidence to the Commission – another guest, Thomas Huxley, was a Commission member. The Report was followed by a parliamentary bill on the subject, which precipitated a campaign by the British Medical Association with members of the new Physiological Society.

This campaign led to the incorporation of additional protections for experimental animals in the Cruelty to Animals Act, passed on 15th August 1876. These included requirements relating to licensing, inspection and appropriate qualifications. The Act remained in force until 1986 when it was superseded by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Further protection for experimental animals in the UK is now afforded by the European Directive 2010/63 on the ‘Protection of Animals in Scientific Experimentation’. The Physiological Society continues to engage with policy-makers to help inform them about the realities of animal research.

Of the 19 men who met in March 1876, most were based in London and Cambridge and had made – or would make – significant contributions to physiological research, teaching or writing. For several of the founders, physiology was one of many other interests. These included the polymath Francis Galton and writer George H Lewes – companion of the novelist, Mary Ann Evans (‘George Eliot’). Though Lewes described the meeting as ‘..a conference of physiologists…’, the enormous scientific changes of the 1870s effectively represented the start of what we would only later come to recognise as ‘physiology’.

The Society’s Minute Book from the time contains a list of Sanderson’s guests – founders, with him, of The Physiological Society. Their names appear as follows: Wm. Sharpey, Tho. H Huxley, Michael Foster, Geo. H Lewes, Francis Galton, John Marshal [sic], G.M. Humphry, Fk. Wm. Pavy, T. Lauder Brunton, David Ferrier, P.H. Pye-Smith, Wm. H. Gaskell, J.G. McKendrick, E. Klein, E.A. Schäfer, Francis Darwin, Geo. J. Romanes and Gerald F. Yeo.

Founders’ signatures


Some of our founders

John Burdon Sanderson

William Sharpey

Thomas H Huxley

Michael Foster

George H Lewes

EA Schäfer


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