History of KNAW

29 november 2011

Academies in Europe

In the seventeenth century, members of the scientific community in several countries founded academies as fora where scholars could meet. Well-known examples are the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome (founded in 1603) and the Royal Society in London (1660). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, governments in other European countries took the initiative for the founding of academies to serve as central bodies for the promotion of science and international scientific cooperation. The Republic of the United Provinces (the precursor of the State of the Netherlands) did not yet have such an institution, mainly because of the sovereignty of the individual provinces. During the period of the Kingdom of Holland (1806-1810), King Louis Napoleon (brother of Napoleon Bonaparte) promulgated a decree, on 4 May 1808, founding the Royal Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts (‘Koninklijk Instituut van Wetenschappen, Letterkunde en Schoone Kunsten’). The chief aim was:

to perfect the Sciences and Arts, to notify such progress to Foreigners and to introduce inventions or progress achieved elsewhere in our own country.

The Institute provided the government with solicited and unsolicited advice. It also implemented government decrees. The Royal Institute endured after the downfall of the French and King William I confirmed its establishment by Royal Decree in 1816. Thereafter, it became known as the Royal Netherlands Institute of Science, Letters and Arts. It found a home in the ‘Trippenhuis’, a monumental 17th-century mansion built by and for the Brothers Trip, a pair of rich arms dealers. From 1815 to 1885 the Trippenhuis also housed the national museum, the Rijksmuseum.

Royal Academy

In 1851, the old Institute was closed down by Royal Decree and replaced by a Royal Academy of Sciences , which had the aim of promoting Mathematics and Physics. In 1855 the object of the Royal Academy was expanded to include the ‘promotion of the linguistic, literary, historical and philosophical sciences’. The Academy was divided into two Divisions, a Science Division (‘Natuurkunde’) and a Humanities and Social Sciences Division (‘Letterkunde’), which covered the entire spectrum of scientific endeavour. This twofold division exists to this day. The current name Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences dates from 1938, although it was not allowed to bear the designation ‘Royal’ during the Occupation in the Second World War.

Advisory councils

The Academy’s activities expanded after the Second World War, when the Academy found an increasing call on its services as an advisory body to the government. The Biological Council was established as early as 1923. Since the end of the 1950s further advisory councils have been added in various scientific fields. The KNAW currently has five such permanent councils.

Research institutes

The first research institutes became affiliated with the Academy in the first half of the 20th century. Other Academy institutes were added after the Second World War. The present Academy institutes concentrate on research in the life sciences, humanities and social sciences, as well as providing services to the scientific community.

KNAW Historiography

The KNAW regularly organises seminars on its history, set against the wider perspective of the history of science in the Netherlands. The lectures are published in a series, including monographs, concerning the history of the Academy. The series ‘Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen’ (‘Contributions to the history of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences’) appears under the responsibility of the KNAW History Committee. A number of publications (in Dutch) have now appeared on the history of the Academy, its members and institutes.

Archives, library and list of members

The pre-1945 archives of the KNAW are now housed at the State Archives in North Holland. The personal archives of a number of leading scholars – including former Academy members and Nobel Prize winners Hendrik Antoon Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman – are also held here. The post-Second World War archives are still held by the Academy itself. The Academy has been publishing its own publications since 1808. These contain reports of conferences and individual scientific contributions. The series of publications is held by the NIWI-KNAW. A full list of members of the Royal Institute and the Academy from 1808 to 2000 has been compiled by the demographer Prof. Dirk J. van de Kaa. This also includes an index of life histories and obituaries of past members in official Academy publications. That list can be found here. Text ©2010 Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.