From the archives: The Academy’s founding document

March 25, 2019

The Academy’s Basser Library and Fenner Archives contain a treasure trove of stories from the history of Australian science.

On 16 February 1954, a group of scientists—the ten members of the Academy’s first Council—gathered during a small ceremony at Government House. They were there to receive the Academy’s founding document, the Royal Charter.

It had been a somewhat frantic effort to get to this point. Renowned physicists Sir Mark Oliphant AC KBE FAA FTSE FRS and Dr David Martyn FAA FRS, equipped with a ‘just do it’ attitude, led the charge to set up a learned academy down under. The pair were backed by a handful of Australian Royal Society Fellows as well as Prime Minister Menzies.

The race was on to get a Royal Charter ready for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Australia in 1954. The Charter would officially establish the existence of the Australian Academy of Science, as well as set out the Academy’s structure, purpose and operations. A petition and draft charter for the proposed academy were sent to London in late 1953 and rushed through the Privy Council approval process, before the charter went to the Queen for her official seal.

The Royal Charter was signed, sealed and delivered to Canberra by 2 February 1954—just in time for the royal couple’s Canberra sojourn.

The initial idea had been to have Prince Philip, a keen supporter of science, present the Royal Charter. However, he changed his mind, instead suggesting that the situation was important enough for the Queen herself to do the honours. He said that a Royal Charter had not been presented in person by any monarch since King Charles II presented one to the Royal Society of London in 1662.

Just as the petitioning process had been a little ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants’, the presentation of the Royal Charter was hilariously haphazard. The scientists’ visit to Government House included a dropped rifle, an intrusion by an unsuspecting, feather-duster-toting maid, and Menzies hiding in the butler’s pantry. The presentation itself began late, after Prince Philip failed to realise the Queen was waiting for him and instead spent his merry time playing with an espresso coffee machine. 

Nonetheless, the Royal Charter was presented sometime between 4.30 and 5 pm, bestowing the nascent Australian Academy of Science with the authority and gravitas suited to an organisation promoting scientific excellence.

It turns out that Prince Philip hadn’t quite got his history correct—while King Charles certainly signed the Royal Society’s charter, he did not deliver it in person. That makes the Australian Academy of Science perhaps the only body in the Commonwealth to receive its charter directly from the hands of the monarch!

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science