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Wellcome Trust fuelled bid to save British science treasure

Private donors finance return of Hooke's manuscript.

The Wellcome Trust put its financial weight behind Britain's Royal Society last week in order to rescue a prized seventeenth-century manuscript from bidders at Bonhams auction house in London.

The society claims that the 520-page treasure, handwritten by the physicist Robert Hooke, was taken from its archives some 300 years ago, and put out a public plea to recover the papers (see Nature 439, 638–639; 200610.1038/439638a). The privately funded Wellcome Trust pledged half of the £1 million (US$1.7 million) that the society used to negotiate an eleventh-hour deal with the manuscript's vendors.

The papers document the society's meetings from 1661 to 1682, and feature many personal comments from Hooke, former secretary of the society and one of its most influential scientists. The manuscript was found in a private house in Hampshire last year. When it became apparent in February that the papers were to be auctioned off, the society appealed for benefactors.

The resulting £1 million came from 146 separate pledges, 122 of which were from Royal Society fellows. Donations ranged from £5 to £500,000, although a society spokesman told Nature that the Wellcome Trust was not the only substantial donor.

“We are very grateful,” says the Royal Society's president, Martin Rees. “We're delighted because the manuscript has gone to its natural place.” The society hopes to take delivery of the document this month, and is planning to display it as part of a summer exhibition at the society's London headquarters.

Historians will scrutinize the handwritten papers for discrepancies with the formal minutes of the meetings, which the society already has. The results may resolve several disputes, such as Hooke's claim that he was the original inventor of the spring-balance watch.

Clare Matterson, director of medicine, society and history at Wellcome, says the manuscript is “equivalent to a Shakespeare folio”.

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Hopkin, M. Wellcome Trust fuelled bid to save British science treasure. Nature 440, 725 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/440725b

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