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Our history

We've been exploring, discovering and sharing new ideas for a long time, in a tradition formalised in the 1600s.

Pre-New Zealand Institute

In 1660 Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and John Wilkins get together with other thinkers of the time to discuss ideas and test out their theories. They started the Royal Society London to formalise this work, with the patronage of King Charles II.

Over the years other Royal Societies started up, eg Edinburgh where James Hector came from, who will be integral to starting our organisation. The various Royal Societies operate independently from each other.

In 1769 the Royal Society London funds James Cook and Joseph Bank’s expedition, on which they reach New Zealand and meet Māori (who discovered New Zealand around 1280).

Hector then comes to New Zealand in 1862 to do the Geological Survey of Otago and becomes an indispensable advisor to government on science, technology, medicine and commerce. He starts the colonial museum and laboratory, observatory, meteorological department, among many others.

The New Zealand Institute to Royal Society of New Zealand

Hector, with the help of William Travers MP, starts the New Zealand Institute via an Act of Parliament in 1867 for the study of science, art, philosophy and literature. They publish people's ideas, observations and research in the Transactions and Proceedings.

Changes are made in 1903 to democratise the organisation and involve more members in decision making. Then the name is changed to Royal Society of New Zealand in 1933.

We focus down on science in the 1965 Act, and add Social Sciences, Technology and later Humanities in the 2012 update to the Act.

Today we are highlighting our Māori name Royal Society Te Apārangi, and promoting knowledge more broadly as many of the biggest issues we face are multi-disciplinary.

Famous people from history and today amongst our Fellows

James Hector, instigator of New Zealand Institute 1867 (see above – before we had Fellows)

Lord Rutherford, physicist who split the atom, and one of original 20 Fellows 1919

Sir Peter Buck, Te Rangi Hiroa, preeminent anthropologist, first Māori Fellow 1925

Kathleen Curtis, mycologist, founder of plant pathology in NZ, first woman Fellow 1936

William Pickering, Led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team in US that developed and launched Explorer 1, America’s first satellite.  Honorary Fellow 1964

Beatrice Tinsley, discovered the evolution and size of galaxies and the universe. Honorary Fellow 1977

Christine Winterbourn, pathologist who demonstrate that human cells produce free radicals and showed their role in diseases such as cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease and arthritis. Fellow 1988

Dame Anne Salmond, anthropologist, environmentalist and writer known especially for her study of Māori history. Fellow 1990

Sir Paul Callaghan, physicist and science communicator, President of Society’s Academy Council, Fellow 1990

Margaret Brimble CNZM, chemist who developed chemical synthesis of complex natural products and used in the development of pharmaceuticals. Fellow 2001.

Providing advice through history to today

  • Helping provide information for New Zealanders on the Mt Tarawera eruption.
  • Protecting our native flora and fauna, and promoting education about conservation.
  • Promoting safer building standards after the 1931 earthquake in Hawkes Bay.
  • Advising on the dangers of nuclear testing, nuclear fallout and the impact of nuclear war (1960s-80s).
  • Advising on climate change (1980s-today ongoing).
  • Information on hot topics: sugar, gene editing, fluoridation, demographic change, pest management, a sustainable economy.

Explore more of our history on our interactive timeline.