A brief history of The Learned Society of Aarhus

Written by Palle Lykke and translated by Laila Sedgwick

The Learned Society of Aarhus was established in October 1945, when the Aarhus University was just seventeen years old. The Learned Society’s original purpose was to provide a scholarly forum where professors and senior lecturers at the university could meet for lectures and interdisciplinary discussions. At this point the university was still small enough for everybody to know each other from the cafeteria, but there was a desire to add a disciplinary element to these everyday social interactions. Initially the Society consisted of professors and lecturers, who automatically became members when they were employed by the university. Scholars with doctoral degrees working outside the university could also become members, if their names were put forth by two members of the Society and the proposal was then approved by the Society’s president. This allowed a prominent engineer from the Aarhus Oil Factory, a consultant physician and an archivist to be incorporated into the Society in its early years. 

From the very beginning, the Learned Society was highly ambitious. It regarded itself as an “academy” within the university comparable to the renowned Royal Academy in Copenhagen. Among the Society’s early accomplishments was the publication of a number of academic works by individual members.

Holding meetings and publishing academic works was not free, and the Learned Society looked to the university and private sponsors for financial support. In its first year the Society was given a total of 4,000 Danish Crowns by a number of private companies. More recently it has been funded by membership fees and investment income, which is spent primarily on meetings and an annual summer outing. The Society’s publication of Acta Jutlandica has been funded separately, by a grant from the university, since its first issue in 1973.

In the early 1970s, the Learned Society was, to a certain extent, regarded by the outside world (including sponsors) as a closed collection of representatives of the old-fashioned league of professors. The Society reacted to this by abolishing the rule that only professors and senior lecturers could be members, allowing university employees who were not professors or even holders of a doctorate to join.

Meetings of the Learned Society, which consist of lectures followed by a meal and a discussion, usually take place at the university. Over the years the Society has tried both standalone lectures with no connection to previous or subsequent lectures, and series of lectures sticking to a single theme for a semester or two. Other formats, such as having both lecturer and respondent, have also been used in the past. Usually the format is altered when too few members turn up to a meeting, in order to attract a larger audience.

Plans to build a headquarters for the Learned Society arose several times in the 1970s, but were never realised, despite collecting a million Crowns for the purpose of having C.F. Møller, the university architect, design a suitable building.

If the idea of a headquarters was inspired by the Royal Academy’s distinguished building in Copenhagen, so were several other traditions that were adopted and then abandoned, either immediately or over the last twenty or thirty years. This applied especially to two practices: allowing any member who had published an academic work to give a short presentation of it at the next meeting, and the tradition of holding short memorial addresses for recently deceased members at the following meeting. Another practice that was later discontinued was the publishing of the Learned Society’s yearbook, which was released five times in the years around 1960. It included selected lectures, membership lists and so on. “Membership diplomas” (also known as “letters of summons”) for recently appointed members did not last longer than a few years, either - they began in 1958 and had been discontinued by 1961. This is when the artist Mogens Zieler was commissioned to design an emblem or seal for the Society.

It is not known what deeper meanings lie behind the emblem, but it seems fitting to interpret it as follows: the five owls (the bird of Minerva) represent the five disciplines of the Society, and their more solid wings constitute leaves of the tree of wisdom that the whole structure forms. The lower part of the tree is completed by two highly stylized claws, making the emblem a potentially airborne tree of wisdom (cf. the leaping dolphins of the university’s seal). Around this central motif, forming a circular frame around the logo, is the text “DET LÆRDE SELSKAB I AARHUS 1945” (The Learned Society of Aarhus 1945), with six-pointed stars between each word. Presumably the stars symbolise points of orientation in the busy universe of the owls, which is a metaphor for the point of departure of research: penetrating the darkness.

Since its establishment, the following presidents have run the Learned Society of Aarhus: Ernst Frandsen (1946-1949), Fritz Schønheyder (1949-1952), Johannes Munck (1952-1955), Jørgen Pedersen (1955-1958), Peter Skautrup (1958-1961), Willy Munck (1961-1964), H.M. Thamdrup (1964-1967), K.E. Løgstrup (1967-1970), Jørgen S. Dich (1970-1973), Carl F. Wandel (1973-1976), Søren Sørensen (1976-1979), H.P. Clausen (1979-1981), Ole Fenger (1981-1988), Svend Andersen 1988-1995), Ole Togeby (1995-2002), Niels Henrik Gregersen (2002-2003), Raben Rosenberg (2003-2006), Hans Jørgen Lundager Jensen (2007-2009), Leif Kahl Kristensen (2010), Else Roesdahl (2011-2012), Eve-Marie Becker (2013-2015), Lotte Rahbek Schou (2015-)

A more detailed account of the Learned Society’s first fifty years can be found in Palle Lykke’s Det lærde Selskab i Aarhus 1945-1995 (165 pages, Aarhus University Press, 1995).