22 Sep 2023
by Rebecca Ellerington

SEB Membership History

This article was published as a chapter of the "Celebrating 100 years of SEB" book.


Election into the Society

From the very outset, the SEB aimed to foster scientific camaraderie and knowledge-sharing among individuals who demonstrated a keen interest in experimental biology. The Council Meeting of the Society in January 1924 laid the foundation for membership, declaring, "Persons who now have a right without further formalities to be original members of the Society are all those present at the Inaugural Conference and all those whom the Officers of the Society determine as desirable."

Initially, candidates for Society membership needed sponsorship from two existing members, one of whom had personal knowledge of the nominee. Nominations were submitted in writing to one of the Society's Secretaries, at least three weeks before the next meeting. Council members would then convene to vote on the acceptance or rejection of these submissions, under the rule that "One blackball in six shall exclude!" meaning that if more than one-sixth of Council members voted against a candidate joining the Society, their application would be rejected. This rule, although in place, was never invoked to exclude any candidate. Over the years, the requirement for sponsorship evolved, and today, membership is open to anyone with a professional interest in experimental biology, regardless of their career stage or background.

Membership numbers

The Society's membership witnessed steady growth from its inception in 1923 through 1940, with an average of 32 new members elected each year. During the challenging years of World War II (1939-1945), membership fell in light of disrupted careers and research activities. However, post-war years saw a resurgence and by the 50th-anniversary mark in 1973, the Society boasted annual membership applications ranging from approximately 80 to 100, with the total membership base hovered around 1800, comprising 400 overseas members and 1400 based in the UK.

Remarkably, total membership numbers have remained relatively consistent over the last five decades, surging beyond 2000 members in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, much like the impact of the War in the 1940s, momentarily caused a dip in membership figures due to reduced travel opportunities, thereby reducing the incentive to pay membership fees without the allure of meetings and travel grants. Presently, the Society is witnessing a rebound in membership, marked by the first discernible upward trend since before the pandemic. Furthermore, the international reach of the Society has expanded, reflecting the modern international and collaborative landscape of scientific research and academia. Currently, the Society boasts a diverse membership, with 27% percentage hailing from the UK, and the remainder from all areas of the globe spanning 58 countries.

Subscriptions and Categories

In 1924, the annual subscription fee was fixed at 12 shillings and 6 pence (approximately £15-£20 in today's terms), a uniform rate for all members regardless of their career stage or status. During the Annual General Meeting in 1948, a new category of Retired Membership was introduced. To qualify for this status, members needed to have paid a minimum of twenty annual subscriptions and have retired from full-time employment. Retired members enjoyed the privilege of receiving notices about the Society's activities and attending conferences without any further subscription fees. However, they were excluded from voting at business meetings and could not serve as officers. The fees for all other members remained unchanged until 1950, when they were raised to £1 (equivalent to around £25 in modern currency).

In 1964, the Council introduced a new category of Honorary Membership. This was aimed to acknowledge exceptional services and dedicated contributions rendered to the Society. Unlike the retired category, honorary members could enjoy the full rights of members without the obligation of paying membership fees. To maintain its prestige, this honour was only to be bestowed upon only 1-2 members each year, with the aim of ensuring that only a select few individuals hold this special membership category at any given time. The first recipients of this distinction were: F.A.E. Crew, Sir James Gray, L.T. Hogben, Sir Julian Huxley, W. Neilson Jones, C.F.A. Pantin, W.H. Pearsall, and G.P. Wells. To celebrate this noteworthy addition to the Society's membership, a special dinner was held on the evening of November 6th, 1964, at Imperial College, London.

The next time fees were increased was in 1971 when they were raised from £1 to £2. In modern terms, this translated to a rise from approximately £12 to £24 per year. Soon after, in October 1976, the fees were increased again, reaching over £5 (equivalent to about £32 in modern currency). This adjustment was attributed to inflation and the growing costs of printing, general secretarial expenses, and the cessation of university subsidies for the Society's meetings and administration. In response to the financial burden this increase placed on postgraduate students, the Society introduced a new category called Graduate Student Membership. Research students, endorsed by their department heads, were able to pay £2 per year for the three years of their graduate studies. This subsidy aimed to encourage postgraduate students to actively participate in the Society's meetings and events.

Today, the Society has membership categories that includes student members, early career members, full members, and retired members. Honorary membership is still a rare distinction, occasionally conferred in recognition of exceptional services to the Society. Just as in 1976, subsidised membership fees are available for students and, more recently, for early career members, aimed at facilitating career development and nurturing the next generation of experimental biologists, a key objective of the Society.