History of the Learned Society

Universities have historically been the centers of education of distinguished scientists and intellectuals. However, scientific research required the organization of work on a larger scale, a space for interdisciplinary work and publication. Since the 17th century, the result of this has been the creation of specialized scientific societies and academies. The first attempts at the organization of research in Hungary – including the territory of present-day Slovakia – appeared during the first half of the 18th century. The scale on which the proposed societies were to operate varied from Habsburg-empire-wide, to intra-Hungarian, to societies active only in some smaller region. From the 19th century onwards, learned societies also operated as instruments of national revivalism.

In 1732 Daniel Fischer published a pamphlet seeking to unite Hungarian scientists (especially naturalists and medical doctors) into a scientific society around the journal Acta eruditorium Pannoniae, which was to discuss natural phenomena and the causes of diseases.

In 1735 Matej Bel presented to the Austrian imperial administration a proposal to found a Hungary-wide learned society with the name Societas Litteraria and a seat in Bratislava. The aim was to gradually bring together all scholars from Hungary, who would be united by patriotism. A need for meetings of specialists and organization of symposia was expressed in its statute, namely in three areas of the sciences – literature, law and natural sciences (as per the nomenclature of the time). The society was envisaged as publishing a monthly scientific journal Bratislava Observations (Observationes Posonienses). However, this proposal was abandoned and forgotten, though rediscovered much later and published in 1965.

In Sopron 1735, K. F. Loew made an appeal to botanists from various countries concerning preparation of a collective work on Pannonian flora. In Bratislava (Pozsony, Pressburg), 1739, Teofil Windisch established a learned society that was focused on literature. During its twelve years of existence the society published several volumes of technical journals in the German language.

In 1763 František Adam Kollár, a native of Terchová and a successful physician at the imperial court in Vienna, also tried to initiate the foundation of a learned society. He published an appeal to Hungarian scholars to establish a societas litteraria. This was to be a society of corresponding members oriented towards studies of Hungarian history, law, economics, and natural resources. Although his first attempt failed, Kollár did not abandon the idea. In 1771 he succeeded in creating a literary society, publishing until 1776 a scientific journal dedicated to Hungary-wide issues under the editor Daniel Trstiansky.

F. A. Kollár, D. Trstiansky and Count J. Teleki were also associated with an anonymous proposal to establish a learned society in Bratislava, called Academia Augusta. Its statutes were to be based on those of the academies of science in Paris, London, Berlin and Saint Petersburg. The Hungarian academy was to be structured in four departments – philosophical (including natural sciences and technical disciplines), historical (including law), economical (including agriculture), and cultural-political (including education, culture, and translations from foreign languages). The Academia Augusta was supposed to have four classes of membership: honorable, regular, corresponding and candidate. Academia Augusta was to be primarily funded from the resources of the Széplak and Szekszárd abbeys. This funding should have covered the erection of a central Academy building in Bratislava, creation of the scientific library, tuitions for regular members and scholarships for extraordinary members. Like the French Academy of Sciences, its patron was to be an influential Hungarian public figure.

Members of the imperial council reacted negatively to the proposal, partly due to political reasons – a Hungarian Academy was not supposed to exist before an imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna could be founded. This criterion was taken into account in a project proposed in 1774 to the Imperial Court's Commission of Studies by the director of the imperial astronomical observatory, Maximilian Hell, a native of Banská Štiavnica. He proposed to found an imperial royal learned society or academy of sciences in Vienna. It was supposed to have seven departments, focused exclusively on the natural and quantitative sciences – astronomy, geometry, mechanics, physics, botany, anatomy and chemistry. However, economic and political factors interfered again. Its expenditures were supposed to be covered by publishing special calendars and selling them throughout the kingdom. This elicited disagreement from the Hungarian Royal Office and Regency Council, which would rather have used these incomes to establish a Hungarian Academy in Trnava (Tyrnavia, Tyrnau, Nagyszombat). In the end, both Hell's original proposal and the Trnava-based variant were withdrawn.

In the second half of 18th century, conditions in the Slovak environment were favourable for the activities of identity nationalism. In 1792 the efforts of Anton Bernolák resulted in the creation of the Slovak Learned Guild (Slovenské učené tovarišstvo), which ended up effectively being an extended publishing company with its seat in Trnava. Later, in 1793 Juraj Ribay put together a proposal for a true scientific society that he called Institute, or the Czecho-Slavic Society Among Slovaks in Hungary. Its research activity was to be focused on Slovak-inhabited regions. The proposal contained the concepts of homeland studies, of the topics of geography, cultivation of the mother tongue (at that time, biblical Czech) and the regional culture. The society was supposed to have three kinds of membership: candidates, regular and honorable members. Later, the ideas of Juraj Ribay were partially adopted by the Society of the Learned Guild of the Mining Countryside (Spolok učeného tovarišstva banského okolia), also known as Societas Slavica, which was founded in 1810 on the initiative of Bohuslav Tablic. Tablic had ambitious goals regarding general studies of the homeland and intellectual progress, as well as the cultural and economic elevation of the Slovak people. Unfortunately, during its 22 years of existence the real work of Societas Slavica in documentation and education resulted in mere sporadic publication activity. The society ceased to exist in 1832 after the death of B. Tablic.

Much stronger marks in the field of publishing were left by the regional Learned Society of the Kis-Hont (Učená spoločnosť malohontská), founded in 1808 in Nižný Skálnik on the initiative of Ján Feješ. This institution produced an annual publication called “Solennie”. Though the sociological concepts of the authors were dominated by official Hungarian political views, there were several valuable contributions to social sciences, including the history and geography relating to the Slovak territory.

The development of a homeland research orientation was stimulated in the first half of the 19th century by J. Kollár and P. J. Šafárik. It was Šafárik who in 1827 for the first time mentioned the need for Matica slovenská (which may be loosely translated “The Mother of Slovaks”), a volunteer-driven organisation for collection and preservation of the culture and cultural artefacts of Slovaks. Nevertheless, at that time, cultural-scientific communities based on national enlightenment did not succeed. Two such communities worthy of mention were The Slavic Society (Slovanská spoločnosť) and The Slavic Reading Community (Slovanský čitateľský spolok) founded in Pest and Buda and associated with the name of Martin Hamuljak. Inspired by P. J. Šafárik, around 1940, the generation of intellectuals associated with Ľudovít Štúr raised the idea of establishing Matica slovenská or The National Learned Society (Národná učená spoločnosť), but this proposal did not get beyond the planning stage either.

There were no organized scientific activities in Slovakia during the era of the Štúr generation. The reason for this, besides the political pressures caused by an increasing nationalism, was an ambivalent view on the role of science in society held by some members of this generation. Nonetheless, at the time when – on the initiative of I. Szécsényi – the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was established in Pest, some ideas for the future prospects of science in the Slovak surroundings were also generated. These ideas were particularly related to the humanities – history, literary science, folklore and linguistics – although mostly pursued by individuals (for example, the ethnographic works of Ján Čaplovič). These concepts formed the basis for the activities of the Matica slovenská (which was finally established in Martin in 1863) in its six divisions covering linguistics, literary science, history, law and philosophy, mathematics and natural sciences, and musicology. The scientific fields lent the nature of a scientific society to the Matica slovenská. It had three degrees of membership, honorable, corresponding and regular, and had elected officials. The needs of the Slovak people prompted additional roles for the Matica slovenská – national museum, library, archive, publishing house and instrument of general intellectual edification. The Annals of MS (Letopisy Matice Slovenskej) published seminal results in homeland studies and, until the official abolition of MS in 1875, also served as a forum for the presentation of matters of Slovak national interest.

An important period in the organization of science in Slovakia was that marked by the activities of Andrej Kmeť. After opening the National House (Národný dom) in Martin in 1890 and establishing a museum and library, from 1892 onwards he made an effort to found a Slovak Learned Society in Martin with several branches. He used to call this institution the Slovak Academy of Sciences, as well. He saw it as an opportunity to encourage, mobilize and coordinate the best scholars. This initiative was supported by S. H. Vajanský, J. Francisci, J. Škultéty, J. Petrikovich, A. Halaša and others. According to the proposed statutes, the Society was supposed to practice all sciences and arts. Founding, honorable, regular and corresponding membership were suggested. Programmes of the council and/or general assemblies included scientific lectures, presentations and assignments of research topics. The Statutes also required publication of a scientific journal. On 24th April 1893, the founding meeting of the Society took place in the library of the National House (Národný dom) in Martin. The discussion, involving 30 founding and 141 regular members, resulted in a vote and subsequent modification of the initial intention – the newly-created society was finally called the Slovak Museum Society (Muzeálna slovenská spoločnosť), whose statutes were drawn up by Pavol Križko. A. Kmeť was elected to be its head. The statutes contained the fundamental declaration that “the purpose of the Society is to search for various wonders of the Upper Hungary and to collect everything that relates to the Slovak people, to its spiritual and material life, and to the countries inhabited by this people”. In 1896 a proposal of P. Socháň was accepted, branching the interests of the Museum Society into four categories: geography and natural history; prehistory, antiquity and anthropology; national studies, and the various subfields thereof; and finally, craft, industry, economy and trade. In 1896 the journal Proceedings of the SMS (Sborník Muzeálnej Slovenskej Spoločnosti) began to be published, comprising extended scientific studies. Two years later the aforementioned journal had been accompanied by Journal of the SMS (Časopis Muzeálnej Slovenskej Spoločnosti), published bimonthly.

A. Kmeť strongly emphasized popularization of scientific results and formation of the younger scientific generation as an important part of the activities of the SMS. He also stressed the need for preserving and saving national monuments. He was aware of the importance of collaborative work in science, and at the same time of its specialization. Thanks to his very practical ideas about science and its mission, Kmeť managed to reshape SMS into a de facto learned society. In 1906, he had laid a cornerstone of the SMS building which was, however, only completed in 1908, after his death.

The importance of the SMS in the development of Slovak science lay mostly in the organization of research. The results were manifested in the aforementioned printed publications of the SMS, both of which were discontinued in 1914. Social sciences received most attention, but numerous studies were published concerning the natural sciences, fine arts and economy. Several works were of high scholarly value and had a lasting scientific impact. The activities of the SMS were continued after 1918, but by the time of its official dissolution in 1960 these activities had started to overlap with those of the Slovak National Museum (Slovenské Národné Múzeum) in Martin.

After the formation of Czechoslovakia a new instrument for the professionalization of Slovak science was created: the Slovak University in Bratislava. Šafárik’s Learned Society (Učená spoločnosť Šafárikova), founded in 1926 on the initiative of the academic senate of the university, was created to handle the integration and organization of research in Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia. It had regular and extraordinary members, mostly professors and associate professors from the university, and, from 1933, honorable and foreign members. It was discontinued in 1939 and its successor until 1949 was the Slovak Learned Society (Slovenská učená spoločnosť). With this society were associated several scientific journals, including the prominent Slovak Homeland Studies (Slovenská vlastiveda). Mostly on the initiative of the society, in 1942 the Slovak Academy of Sciences and Arts was created, a direct ancestor of today's Slovak Academy of Sciences: deeply rooted in national traditions, and constituting an organic continuation of the complex history of science and research in Slovakia, and of the work of many previous scholars, scientific and cultural societies and institutions.

Various types of learned societies have played an important role in the history of science in Slovakia. Their heritage is reflected – according to the needs of modern society – in the mission of the modern Learned Society of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

The Slovak version of this article was written by A. Ruttkay using information mostly from the following publications:
Barica, J.: Vede a národu (To Science and the Nation), Bratislava 1984.
Tibenský, J. Dejiny vedy a techniky na Slovensku (History of Science and Technology in Slovakia), Martin 1979.
The translation was provided by James Asher, Lukáš Konečný and Jozef Noga.