(b. London, England, 29 October 1690; d. London, 29 June 1754)
The eldest son of Martin Folkes, a solicitor, and his wife, Dorothy, he first attended the University of Saumur, in France. He entered Clare Hall (Clare College), Cambridge, in 1706, to study mathematics and matriculated in 1709. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1714, the year of his marriage to Lucretia Bradshaw. The university granted him an M.A. in 1717.
His interest in coins and artifacts led him to be chosen a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1719, and he became vice-president of the Royal Society in 1722. After Newton’s death in 1727, he was defeated by Sir Hans Sloan for the presidency but remained vice-president. He continued his numismatic and antiquarian pursuits, but his contributions to the Philosophical Transactions were minor.1
Upon Sloan’s retirement from the presidency of the Royal Society in 1741, Folkes succeeded to the office. His “literary rather than scientific bent” was reflected in the society’s meetings which, according to his friend William Stukeley, became “a most elegant and agreeable entertainment for a contemplative person.”2 Other comments on Folkes’s leadership were less charitable: the Philosophical Transactions for the period of his presidency allegedly contained “a greater proportion of trifling and puerile papers than are anywhere else to be found,” and the meetings merely allowed “personages acting the importants . . . to trifle away time in empty forms and grave grimaces.”3 John Hill, the society’s severest critic, blamed Folkes for this state of affairs.4
Despite these criticisms, Folkes was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1742, had his Table of Silver Coins From the Conquest published by the Society of Antiquaries in 1744, stood (unsuccessfully) for Parliament, received the D.C.L. from Oxford in 1746, and became president of the Society of Antiquaries in 1750. His health began to fail, and he resigned his office in the Royal Society in 1752.
Under Folkes the Royal Society lost much of its professional character. James Jaurin’s epitaph best sums up his career: “He was Sir Isaac Newton’s friend, and was often singled out . . . to fill his chair.”5
1. E.g., “Remarks on Standard Measures Preserved in the Capitol of Rome,” cited in C. Weld, p. 478.
2. Stukeley, III, 472.
3. Weld, pp. 483, 487.
4. Hill, preface.
5. Cited in Weld, p. 479.
Folkes’s publications include A Dissertation of the Weights and Values of Ancient Coins (London, 1734); A Table of Silver Coins From the Conquest (London, 1744); and A Table of English Gold Coins From the Eighteenth Year of King Edward II (London, 1745).
No full-scale biography of Folkes exists. Sketches may be found in Charles R. Weld, A History of the Royal Society: With Memoirs of the Presidents (London, 1848); and Warwick Wroth, “Martin Folkes,” in Dictionary of National Biography, V (London, 1884).
A less formal view of Folkes is presented in William Stukeley, Family Memoirs, 3 vols. (London, 1882–1884). The faults of his presidency are most clearly outlined in John Hill, A Review of the Works of the Royal Society (London, 1751).
Joel M. Rodney