Royal Society of Victoria

The Royal Society of Victoria was formed in 1859 as an amalgamation of the Philosophical Society of Victoria and the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science, with a brief to promote science and technology in Victoria.

In 1857, the Philosophical Institute had formed the Exploration Committee, which promoted the idea of an expedition to cross Australia from south to north, and funds were raised for the endeavour:

We are authorised to state that a gentleman of Melbourne proposes to give the sum of £1000 towards the promotion of a judicious scheme of Australian exploration.

– The Argus, 19 August 1858

Phoenix, D 2008, Burke and Wills Web, viewed April 2011, <>.

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Despite having no practical exploration experience, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills were appointed to lead the Victorian Exploring Expedition, travelling from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The party left Royal Park in August 1860, to great public fanfare, wih 15,000 people waving them off. Similar to many expeditions of the time, the Victorian Exploring Expedition aimed to discover new grazing land and gather information about geography, climate, geology, flora, fauna and the Indigenous people.

It began full of promise, but ended in disaster. The expedition party became overdue, and the Society sent prominent member Alfred William Howitt to look for them. He discovered that Burke, Wills and Charles Gray had died from starvation. Only one of the party, John King, had survived.

In Melbourne, controversy raged as to who was responsible for the failure, and the state Government appointed a Royal Commission to determine who was at fault. Amongst its findings, the Commission's report questioned Burke's leadership and criticised the Exploration Committee for its inaction when Burke and Wills were overdue.

The Society didn't actively engage in large-scale exploration after the Burke and Wills disaster. In 1885, it established an Antarctic Exploration Committee, but never succeeded in launching an expedition.

Nonetheless, the Society's members contributed much to scientific knowledge in Victoria, and are still at the forefront of scientific debate. Through public lectures and its publications, the Society helped spread knowledge about new scientific discoveries and inventions such as the telephone, microscope and microphone. The Society's vast historical archives, including its ‘Burke and Wills collection', are housed at the State Library of Victoria.

Engraving of events at the Royal Society of Victoria, including an address and demonstrations of inventions.
Brass plate bearing Burke & Wills' initials.
William Strutt's painting of the relief party burying the remains Robert O'Hara Burke.
Pistol found in the hand of Burke when his body was recovered.