History of the RMS

Since 1839, the Royal Microscopical Society has been at the forefront of developments and advances in microscopy and imaging.

The Society was founded as "The Microscopical Society of London" in 1839 and was awarded its Royal Charter in 1866. A lot has happened since then...

The origin of the Society can be traced back to a meeting of seventeen gentlemen – including Edwin Quekett and Joseph Jackson Lister - at Wellclose Square, London on 3rd September 1839.

They met “to take into consideration the propriety of forming a society for the promotion of microscopical investigation, and for the introduction and improvement of the microscope as a scientific instrument.” Following discussions, the group resolved to establish a Society and a provisional committee was appointed to see it through.

Their account of why a Society was necessary captures the tone of the era. It starts, “For some years past, several of the metropolitan microscopical observers have been in the habit of occasionally meeting in each other’s houses, for the purpose of comparing the powers and other merits of different microscopes.” It goes on to say how the increasing number of “lovers of the microscope” meant that a permanent address was needed where they could all meet for the purposes of “the advancement of the science of the microscope.” And so, The Microscopical Society of London was founded.

At its first meeting, Professor Richard Owen took the Chair and was elected its first President. Forty men signed-up as original members. They wrote their names in a large leather-bound book. This book is still in use today to record the Society’s Honorary Fellows (its highest honour) and provides a lasting link with the Society’s past. The names of the first forty Fellows - in the handwriting of the day – are still there.

Did you know?

The final act of the provisional committee (of the The Microscopical Society of London) was both eminently practical and of long-term significance. It decided that the dimensions of the glass slips used by members to mount specimens should he fixed at 3 inches by one inch, and 3 inches by one-and-a-half inches. Because of the influence exerted by the Microscopical Society, the first of these standards, 3xl inch, was gradually adopted throughout the microscope trade, a valuable piece of standardization still current today. In line with this practical approach, the first purchase by the Society was a cutting board and diamond cutter for making glass slides.

(extract from 'God Bless the Microscope!')

Two years later, in 1841, the first appearance of the Journal can be recorded. Members began to publish their findings in The Microscopic Journal. The Transactions of the Microscopical Society of London first appeared in 1844.

Membership of this Society grew and, in 1866, Dr James Glaisher announced to members that Council had decided to apply for a Royal Charter of Corporation, thus establishing the Society as a legal entity and protecting the members should it ever fall in to debt. On the 1st November that year, the Society was informed that its application had been successful and that it should, from then on style itself, the Royal Microscopical Society.

Following this, the Society wanted more control over its publishing and the first volume of The Monthly Microscopical Journal appeared. This was replaced in 1877 by the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society. This name endured until 1969 when it became the Journal of Microscopy. The Proceedings of the Society were started in 1966. Like the Journal, it continues to this day, under the title of infocus since 2006.

There are crucial turning points in the Society’s history. It was founded at the time that Lister’s research on lens systems turned a philosophical or recreational instrument into a truly scientific one. Forty years later, the optics of the microscopical image were for the first time explained by Ernst Abbe. The Society’s membership surged and its Journal became well established. The Edwardian period and the inter-war years were a time of survival rather than achievement, but with the growth of the specialist Sections from 1964, the move to Oxford in 1967, the acquisition of freehold premises in 1974, and the granting of Supplemental Charters in 1977 and 2008 the Society managed to make the fundamental transformation from a Victorian London-based club to the internationally active Society with income in excess of £1M that it is today.

Find out more

  • God Bless The Microscope cover.jpg

    God Bless the Microscope!

    Gerard L'E Turner

    First published in 1989, Gerard L'E Turner's superb, historical text chronicled the first 150 years of the Society. 

    Download a PDF version

  • moving forward.jpg

    Moving Forward

    John L Hutchison

    Produced for the 175th Anniversary celebrations, this account provides a brief outline of the developments within the RMS from 1989 - 2014. It complements "God bless the microscope!" which chronicled the first 150 years of the Society. It is written by Honorary Fellow and Past President, Dr John Hutchison, from the standpoint of a practising microscopist with involvement in the Society during this time.

    Download a PDF version or request a free copy of the book from Lucy Ridler.