13 Dec 2023
by Brittney G. Borowiec

Learned Societies: Origins, Impact, and the SEB's Evolution

What do you think of when you hear the term “learned society?” Personally, I picture a dark sitting room in Victorian London. Greybeards in waistcoats puff clay pipes, critiquing a periodical about steam engines with exaggerated, posh accents. Today’s learned societies are much more than this stereotypical view of old timey science in Europe. With members hailing from 58 countries and every continent except Antarctica, SEB is a truly international community. In place of sitting rooms, there are meetings at convention centres in Edinburgh, Montpellier, Seville, and elsewhere. The greybeards are joined by a dynamic and diverse contingent of students and early career researchers who share their curiosity and passion for plant, animal, and cell biology.

Learned societies officially joined the British academic community when King Charles II granted a royal charter to the Royal Society in 1660. From the 1830s until at least the mid-1950s, the number of societies expanded rapidly, with Society for Experimental Biology appearing on the scene in 1923. As SEB’s 100th birthday year winds down, it worthwhile to reflect on its earliest days as a learned society, and how things have changed (or not!).

The British Journal of Experimental Biology and SEB

Perhaps the most important role of many learned societies is publishing an academic journal in its area of interest. This legitimizes the society as a steward of the scientific record while also securing a critical revenue steam. Subscription and advertising sales, subsidized by volunteer peer-reviewers, can turn a profit. Many societies, including SEB ,are charities that reinvest their earnings into endeavours supportive of their charitable mission like conference meetings, small research grants, and outreach and diversity projects.  

What may surprise SEB members is that this relationship was reversed in the early days: The British Journal of Experimental Biology (BJEB), the primordial form of the Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB), came first. Hoping to improve publishing prospects in the fledgling field of experimental zoology in Britain, Lancelot T. Hogben and Francis A.E. Crew brokered a deal with Edward A. Sharpey-Schafer, Editor of the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology, to shift his journal’s scope towards experimental zoology. By April 1922, they even had a new name picked out – the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Biology – that would come into use following the publication of a final transitional issue. But as independent scholar Steindór J. Erlingsson describes it, Sharpey-Schafer was impossible to please, rejecting nearly every manuscript that Crew and Hogben sent him, and the agreement fizzled out.

With Crew and Hogben distracted, the third member of SEB’s founding trio, Julian S. Huxley, independently pursued creating a new experimental zoology journal with his colleague Alexander Carr-Saunders, an effort that Hogben and Crew joined by March 1923. Crew negotiated a printing deal with Oliver & Boyd, and the quartet filled out the editorial board with respected colleagues from eminent institutions. Letters in Nature and Science formally introduced BJEB to the international community with Crew as its Managing Editor.

Before BJEB’s first issue hit the press in October 1923, its editorial board was already brainstorming ways to drum up support for BJEB and experimental zoology as a whole. Backed by his colleagues, Hogben organized a conference (the first SEB meeting, December 1923), where 99 invitees voted Hogben as the new society’s first zoological and physiological secretary.

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A handwritten document from 30 April 1924 with the list of SEB members. This document is stored in the SEB Archives.


A century later, SEB maintains a five journal roster: the Journal of Experimental Botany (first published in 1950), The Plant Journal (1991), Plant Biotechnology Journal (2003), Conservation Physiology (2013), and Plant Direct (2017). The publication that kicked everything off, the Journal of Experimental Biology, is officially under the purview of The Company of Biologists, a not-for-profit publisher and charity established by George Parker Bidder III (as in the Bidder Lecture Award) in 1925. Bidder’s financial infusion rescued BJEB from bankruptcy, but came with several changes, including new ownership and publishing schemes and swapping out Crew for James Gray.

Shaping and advancing biology

Owing to their roles as conference organizers and publishers, learned societies indirectly shape their fields. James Gray’s turn as Editor at JEB (née BJEB) marked a shift in zoology. Previously, the editorial board happily entertained descriptive morphology-based studies in addition to experimental ones. This made perfect sense both scientifically, form informs function, and politically, morphology was darling of British zoologists at the time.

After Gray took on editorial duties, descriptive morphological papers disappeared from the journal’s table of contents. One plausible explanation is that morphology papers found natural homes elsewhere as the aims and scope of  JEB resolved. Some, like anatomist and anthropologist G. Elliot Smith, suggested that JEB’s editorial direction reflected a general distain of morphology by experimental zoologists, a charge rebuffed by Gray himself in a letter to Nature in 1930. Whatever the underling cause, the journal’s positioning as a major outlet meant that it pages implicitly defined what was (and was not) experimental zoology.

A quick glance at the abstract booklet for the Centaury Conference in Edinburgh demonstrates that the society continues to shape and expand the field. In addition to traditional animal, plant, and cell biology talks, there are interdisciplinary “science across boundaries” presentations. Sessions dedicated to outreach, teaching and pedagogy, and transversal skills like project management further broaden what it means to be an experimental biologist in 2023.


Making connections

Learned societies are an excellent place to make personal connections as they attract people with similar interests from around the world. Most learned society members probably attend their first meetings as students. It can be a dazzling experience – suddenly you’re in a room with hundreds of scientists and can put faces to all those names that you’ve cited. Science is a team sport, and forging and maintaining connections with future mentors, peer-reviewers, editors, colleagues, reference letter writers, and trainees is one of the most important (and fun!) aspects of being part of a learned society.

Huxley, Hogden, and Crew all met incidentally through the type of routine interactions facilitated by learned societies. In December 1919, Huxley contacted Hogben for feedback on his new manuscript, sparking a collaboration that would eventually lead to a paper on amphibian metamorphosis. Huxley also bonded with Crew over their shared interest in topics like physiological genetics, and advocated strongly for Crew to hire Hogben at the Animal Breeding Research Department. As the trio focused on their goal of establishing BJEB and growing SEB, they leaned on their individual networks for help, advice, and financial support, not unlike how SEB members support each other today.


Social and political advocacy

Learned societies represent their collective members and can facilitate positive social and even political change on their behalf. For example, they keep in touch with funding and regulatory bodies, helping members to voice their concerns. At times, learned societies extend their statements beyond issues directly relevant to the scientific work by their members, such as when SEB joined the Royal Society in support of the Ukrainian people in March 2022. Such statements reflect an implicit understanding of the social and political dimensions of science, and the society’s responsibility as a representation of the scientific consensus to advocate not just for its field, but its members as well.


SEB forever

Experimental biology has changed drastically since the time of Huxley, Hogden, and Crew, and so has the Society for Experimental Biology. We’ve revised and rewritten most of the textbooks, developed sophisticated methods that would have passed for science fiction not long ago, and tackle complex challenges like the climate crisis. At 100 years young, SEB remains a crucial part of the global biology community as a convener of experts, disseminator of scientific findings, and mentoring hub for the next generation.