Henry Oldenburg

Other name: 
Grubendol (anagram of Oldenburg)
first editor, translator, and publisher; founding member of the Royal Society
around 1619
Death or Burial date: 
September 5, 1677

Oldenburg was the first person to serve as secretary of the Royal Society, which put him in a position to play a major role in what we now call the Republic of Letters. Philosophical Transactions was owned and operated by him as a private enterprise until his death. It took five years for the Society to resume publishing under that title and another half-century for it to become the Society's official journal.

As editor of the first twelve volumes of Philosophical Transactions from 1665 until 1677, Oldenburg translated and published the first thirteen of Leeuwenhoek's contributions to his journal. They came from the twenty-seven letters, listed below by date, that Leeuwenhoek addressed to him.

On November 30, at its anniversary meeting to elect new officers, the Royal Society noted the three members who had died during the year: Henry Oldenburg, Francis Glisson, and Francis Vernon. Birch's History (vol. III, pp. 353-356) has a short biography of each, leading off with Oldenburg:

Henry Oldenburg, Esq. who sometimes wrote himself Grubbendol, was a native of Bremen in Lower Saxony, and for several years agent for that republic in England with the long parliament, and the Protector Oliver Cromwell. In the year 1656 he went to Oxford for the advantage of prosecuting his studies, and in June was entered as a student by the name and title of Henricus Oldenburgh, Bremensis, nobilis Saxo; at which time he was, according to Mr. Wood, tutor to Henry Lord O'Brian, eldest son of Henry Earl of Thomond; as he appears likewise to have been to Mr. Richard Jones, son of Lord Viscount Ranalagh by Catharine sister of Mr. Robert Boyle.

He continued at Oxford till April 1657; and soon after attended Mr. Jones to Saumur in France, where they resided till the end of March, 1658. They were at Paris in May, 1659, and in March, 1660; and at Leyden in August, 1661, but returned to England soon after, Mr. Jones, on the llth September, being admitted into the Royal Society as a fellow, and subscribing the obligation.

In the first charter granted to the Royal Society, July 15th, 1662, and in the second, of April 22nd, 1663, Mr. Oldenburg was appointed one of the two secretaries, Dr. Wilkins being the other; which office the former executed till his death.

He began to publish the Philosophical Transactions on Monday the 6th of March, 1664-5, and continued them to the end of June, 1677, without any intermission except for about four months from July 3rd to November 6th, in the year 1665, when the society was dispersed on account of the plague; during which he staid at his house in Pallmall, Westminster, and carried on a correspondence by letters with Mr. Boyle, whose History of Cold he was then translating into Latin. The same year Spinosa began a correspondence with him, and several of his letters to Mr. Oldenburg are printed in his Opera Posthuma.

In September 1666 the necessity of his circumstances, and his disappointment in the profit of the sale of the Philosophical Transactions, on account both of the late plague and fire of London, made him solicitous of procuring some place for the support of himself and his family; for which reason he applied to Mr. Boyle, that he in conjunction with the Lord Viscount Brouncker and Sir Robert Moray would recommend him to the post of Latin secretary to the king, if it should become vacant; upon which application the Lord Viscount Brouncker as well as Mr. Boyle shewed a great deal of zeal for his interest, which he had neglected for the sake of serving the society, having declined several advantageous offers of travelling with young noblemen abroad.

In 1667, probably in the month of August, he was committed prisoner to the Tower of London; of which he gives the following account in a letter to Mr. Boyle, dated at London, September 3, 1667:

"I was so stifled by the prison air, that as soon as I had my enlargement from the Tower, I widened it, and took it from London into the country, to fan myself for some days in the good air of Crayford in Kent. Being now returned, and having recovered my stomach, which I had in a manner quite lost, I intend, if God will, to fall to my old trade, if I have any support to follow it. My late misfortune, I fear, will much prejudice me, many persons, unacquainted with me, and hearing me to be a stranger, being apt to derive a suspicion upon me. Not a few came to the Tower merely to inquire after my crime and to see the warrant, in which when they found, that it was for dangerous designs and practices, they spread it over London, and made others have no good opinion of me. Incarcera audacter; semper aliquid adhseret.

"Before I went into the country, I waited on my Lord Arlington, kissing the rod. I hope I shall live fully to satisfy his majesty and all honest Englishmen of my integrity, and of my real zeal to spend the remainder of my life in doing faithful service to the nation to the very utmost of my abilities. I have learned, during this commitment, to know my real friends. God Almighty bless them, and enable me to convince them all of my gratitude. Sir, I acknowledge and beg pardon for the importunities I gave you at the beginning."

The straitness of his circumstances obliged him to lay before Mr. Boyle, in a letter of December 17th following, the smallness of the consideration, which he had for the many services which he performed to the society, his correspondents foreign and domestic, being no less than thirty at that time, and his income arising from the Philosophical Transactions, which was never more than forty pounds a year, now falling to thirty-six.

And in March, 1667-8, Dr. Ward, Bishop of Salisbury, expressed to him great earnestness to see him provided for with a recognition for his labours for the society, which his lordship said he would move in the council, being ashamed for his own part, that he had been so long neglected, who had for so many years spent all his time and pains in the society's business, without any consideration for it.

Accordingly on the 27th April, 1668, he had a present made him by order of the council; and on the 3rd June, 1669, a salary of forty pounds a year allowed to him.

In 1675 and 1676, he was attacked on account of the Philosophical Transactions by Mr. Hooke, but was justified by a declaration of the council of the society; to which his correspondences in various parts of the world were of the utmost importance. The method, which he used, to answer the great number of letters, which he received every week on a variety of subjects, was to make one letter answer another; and never to read a letter before he had pen, ink, and paper ready to answer it immediately: so that the multitude never cloyed him, or lay upon his hands.

He died suddenly in September 1677, at Charleton near Greenwich in Kent, and was interred there. His wife, daughter and only child of Mr. John Dury, a divine well known for his attempts to reconcile the Lutherans and Calvinists, brought him a portion of four hundred pounds, and an estate in the marshes of Kent worth sixty pounds per annum; and died before September, 1666.

At his death he left two children by her, a son named Rupert, from his god-father Prince Rupert; and a daughter Sophia; to each of which children he left a paper of excellent admonitions and directions for their conduct in life; and likewise a third, entitled, 'Some Considerations left and recommended by H. Oldenburg to his dear Wife Doro-Catharina Oldenburg:' which several pieces are still extant in manuscript.

His son was living in 1717, when the council of the Royal Society on the 28th March, ordered him a present of ten guineas, in consideration of his father's services to it. The minutes of the council-book of September 13, 1677, mention Mr. Oldenburg's widow, and those of a subsequent council stile her his administratrix.

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