The aim of this society is the advancement of science. Membership is open to any person interested in science. The society consists of fellows, life members, ordinary members, country members, student members and associates, and is managed by a council of 19, including the office bearers. The society had its origin in 1854, when two societies, the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Victoria, were formed in June and August respectively. Because both societies had some members in common and it was obvious that Melbourne could not sustain two societies with somewhat similar aims, they amalgamated in July 1855 to form the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. In November 1859, following a request from the institute through its patron, Governor Sir Henry Barkly, Queen Victoria granted the use of the title Royal Society of Victoria.
Early meetings of these societies were held in the Mechanics Institute or the Museum of Natural History. In August 1858 a grant of land between Victoria, La Trobe and Rathdowne streets was made by the government to the institute for scientific purposes. In May 1859 a building designed by architects Reed & Barnes was commenced, though owing to lack of funds only the half fronting Victoria Street was constructed, it was not externally rendered, and the first floor was not installed. Rendering and installation of the first floor, which included a lecture room and library, as well as construction of a caretaker's cottage, were undertaken in 1869, financed by issuing debentures to members. In 1953 the south side of the building was completed and the older part refurbished with funds provided by the Australasian Branch of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which had entered into a long-term lease for the use of the new section.
The principal functions of the society have been in providing lectures, seminars and symposia on scientific topics, maintaining a scientific library for the use of members and the public, and the publication of scientific literature. Parts of the library are also at Museum Victoria and Deakin University. The society's main publication, published under various titles since 1855, is the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, which has been a vehicle for papers in the geological and biological sciences with an emphasis on Victoria. The society has also had a role in sponsoring scientific endeavours such as the Burke and Wills expedition, the acquisition of a large telescope for the Melbourne Observatory, Antarctic exploration, the development of the National Museum of Victoria, the Port Phillip Biological Survey and the establishment of the Victoria Institute of Marine Science.
The garden surrounding the society's hall is open to the public and maintained by the Melbourne City Council. The small triangular portion at the eastern end of the society's land is leased to the Commonwealth Government for meteorological purposes.