The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters

Founded in 1760

The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters was founded in 1760 by Bishop Johan Ernst Gunnerus (1718-1773), professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen, Gerhard Schøning (1722-1780), an historian who was rector of Trondheim Cathedral School, and the historian and Councillor of State Peter Friderich Suhm (1728-1798) who was chairmen of the Danish Academy of Sciences. The Society was at this time named the name 'Det Trondhiemske Selskab' (The Trondheim Society) [4]:-
The historian Gerhard Schøning from Lofoten in northern Norway had studied in Copenhagen and in 1751 was asked to be the headmaster of the Cathedral School by the former headmaster of the school, Benjamin Dass. P F Suhm was a nobleman without money, but with an intense desire for study; he therefore sought to marry a rich woman. Schøning and Suhm were good friends and they left Copenhagen together for Trondheim. Suhm succeeded in marrying Karen Angell, a daughter of a wealthy tradesman, Lorentz Angell, who had a wealthy brother, Thomas, with no children. In Trondheim Schøning and Suhm met each other for study twice a week, and they decided that Schøning should write the history of Norway and Suhm that of Denmark. In 1758 J E Gunnerus from Kristiania was appointed bishop in Trondheim.
Gunnerus had an academic career behind him, having studied theology, philosophy, mathematics and law in Copenhagen and later in Jena and Halle. When Gunnerus arrived in 1758 all three founders of the Society were together in Trondheim. As soon as he arrived in Trondheim he joined Schøning and Suhm. It was Gunnerus who suggested setting up a scientific society in Trondheim, based on a Danish Scientific Society with which he was familiar. To understand how early this was in relation to academic studies in Norway, we note that setting up this Society in 1760 happened more than fifty years before Norway got its first university. The Society quickly began publishing and the first volume of its journal appeared in 1761. Gunnerus, as editor of the journal, received a royal grant in 1762.

The Statutes of the Society were confirmed by royal assent on 17 July 1767. These statutes set up a structure for the Society with a Governor, a Vice-Governor, a secretary, treasurer, a librarian and an unlimited number of domestic and foreign members. The Governor of the new Society was intended to be the King of Denmark-Norway, Christian VII, who had come to the throne in 1766, but because of mental illness his half-brother Frederik became regent in 1772 and took on the role of Governor. The role of Governor might be better described as Protector of the Society. The Society was run by the Vice-Governor, the first of whom was Gunnerus. The new Society had a rule in its statutes that members had to contribute one or more books to the Society's library or pay an equivalent sum. The Society officially came under royal protection and became The Royal Norwegian Scientific Society in 1768. At this stage it had the right to award prizes.

A meeting to celebrate the founding of the new Society was held on 29 January 1768. Gunnerus gave an address in which he argued strongly in favour of Norway having a university. He stressed that in Norway there were cathedrals, a seminary or a gymnasium in Bergen and a seminary in Kongsberg, but no library or university. He emphasizes that the journey to Copenhagen was long and expensive, and that there were few who could afford to be there for a long period of time. This, he said, was detrimental to the cultivation and emergence of science in Norway. Gunnerus's plans for a Norwegian university came to nothing but on a trip to Copenhagen he asked Crown Prince Frederik, now the Governor of the Society, to continue to fund the prizes that the Society was awarding. Frederik agreed an annual sum to be given to the Society.

Gunnerus died in 1773, and with Schøning and Suhm no longer in Trondheim by this time, the Society had lost the impetus that these three had brought to it [4]:-
After the death of Gunnerus, the Society had a period of decline in which it mostly handed out awards and supported scientific investigations rather than engaging in research.
Arild Stubhaug writes in [3]:-
The Society's activity was particularly great for the first 50 years with meetings and publications. In these years, the Society in Trondheim was the only scientific institution in the country. Natural history and archaeological gatherings were created and from the start a library was established. Well-known scientists from home and abroad were elected as members of the Society. Later, business ceased, but increased again from 1874 in connection with the adoption of new statutes.
Again we quote from [4]:-
The Society in Trondheim built a new building in 1866, but the collections were in a bad state. In 1874 there was a significant change when the Society decided to establish a museum. Its main task was to promote natural and cultural history, archaeology and history in general. A modern museum was established that was also a library. 'Vitenskapsmuseet' is today a part of the university in Trondheim and still has both cultural and natural history collections. The library is also a part of the university.
New statutes came into place in 1902 which made significant changes including the annulment of a clause stating that members had to possess an academic qualification. The Society became in effect a museum society focusing on the museum and the library. Further new statutes came into force by Royal Decree of 26 March 1926 [8]:-
In 1926, the annual general meeting agreed to reorganise the scientific activities. The statutes regarding ordinary activities were once again revised and new ones introduced to pave the way for a scientific academy with elected members holding academic qualifications and reflect the needs of the scientific institution, the Museum, with its collections and library. Since 1926, the Society has therefore consisted of two sections, the Academy with its elected members and a separate elected board, and the Museum with its collections and library run by a board.
Subsequently amendments were made to the statutes by Royal Decrees of 23 February 1951, of 2 March 1962, 15 February 1974 and 25 August 1989. These statutes were replaced by revised statutes adopted at a joint meeting on 11 December 2000 and confirmed by Royal Decree of 30 November 2001. Board meetings of the Society have made minor adjustments a number of times since that time. Perhaps the most significant being in 2002 when a joint board to run both the Academy and the Foundation came into place, the members of this joint board elected to office, but the two sections continued to function as separate entities.

The present Society gives the following as its Purpose [8]:-
The purpose of The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters is to promote scholarship by arranging lecture meetings, demonstrations and debates on scholarly topics; by disseminating scholarly knowledge to the general public; by supporting scholarly projects, financially or otherwise; by honouring and rewarding services to scholarship; by publishing scholarly papers; by keeping contact with academies abroad and by international collaboration.
The present rules membership rules allow for active members, which are defined as those under 70 years of age, and members over the age of 70. At present the Society has around 350 active members out of a total membership of around 730. The Society consists of two classes, the Humanist Class and the Natural Science Class. The Natural Science Class is considerably larger and is divided into 8 groups: Group I Mathematics; Group II Physics; Group III Chemistry; Group IV General Biology; Group V Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology; Group VI Medicine; Group VII Geoscience; and Group VIII Technology. The Mathematics Group has 66 domestic and foreign members, including the following members of this archive: Michael Atiyah, Lennart Carleson, Vaughan F R Jones, and Olli Erkki Lehto.

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References (show)

  1. H Midbøe, Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab. 2 Vols. (Trondheim, 1960).
  2. O Schmidt, Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab. Matrikkel 1760-1960 (Trondheim, 1960).
  3. A Stubhaug, Den lange linjen (Tapir akademisk, Trondheim, 2010).
  4. B Berglund, Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab - en 1700-tallshistorie fra Trondheim, in Aarbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 2007 (Kongelige nordiske Oldskriftselskab, Copenhagen, 2010), 53-76.
  5. History, The Royal Norwegian Science Society.
  6. Membership, The Royal Norwegian Science Society.
  7. Statutes, The Royal Norwegian Science Society.
  8. The Royal Norwegian Science Society website.

Last Updated September 2018