The patron of the society is Queen Elizabeth II. Honorary members include the present monarchs of Japan, Emperor Akihito, and Sweden, King Carl XVI Gustaf, both of whom have active interests in natural history, and the eminent broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough.
The Linnean Society was founded in 1788 by botanist Sir James Edward Smith. The society derives its name from the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, the 'father of taxonomy', who systematised biological classification through his binomial nomenclature. He was known as Carl von Linné after his ennoblement, hence the spelling 'Linnean', rather than 'Linnaean'. The society had a number of minor name variations before it gained its Royal Charter on 26 March 1802, when the name became fixed as "The Linnean Society of London". In 1802, as a newly incorporated society, it comprised 228 fellows. It is the oldest extant natural history society in the world. Throughout its history the society has been a non-political and non-sectarian institution, existing solely for the furtherance of natural history.
The society has numbered many prominent scientists amongst its fellows. One such was the botanist Robert Brown, who was president (1849-1853); he named the cell nucleus and discovered Brownian motion. In 1854 Charles Darwin was elected a fellow; he is undoubtedly the most illustrious scientist ever to appear on the membership rolls of the society. Another famous fellow was biologist Thomas Huxley, who gained the nickname "Darwin's bulldog" for his outspoken defence of evolution. Men notable in other walks of life have also been fellows of the society, including the physician Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination, the Arctic explorers Sir John Franklin and Sir James Clark Ross, colonial administrator and founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and Prime Minister of Britain, Lord Aberdeen.
Since 1857 the Society has been based at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London; an address it shares with a number of other learned societies: the Geological Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Royal Society of Chemistry.