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Woodward, John


(b. Derbyshire, England, 1 May 1665; d. London, England, 25 April 1728)

geology, mineralogy, botany.

Woodward was said to have been the son of a man of good family from Gloucestershire. He was educated at a country school, where he became proficient in Latin and Greek. About 1680, at the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to a linen draper in London, but he abandoned this occupation to pursue a further course of study. A few years later he became acquainted with Peter Barwick, physician in ordinary to Charles II. Barwick was impressed by Woodward’s ability and about 1684 took him into his household to study medicine: Woodward remained there about four years. During this period, while on a visit to Sherborne, in Gloucestershire, he studied botany in the surrounding country. While on these excursions he learned for the first time that rocks may contain fossil animal remains-they are particularly common in the Jurassic rocks in that neighborhood. These fossils greatly interested Woodward, and he resolved to investigate their occurrence in other parts of the country. This he undoubtedly did, although no detailed account of the course of his investigation has survived. Later in Oxford he made the acquaintance of two well-known naturalists, Robert Plot, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, and his assistant, Edward Lhwyd, who also were interested in fossils. On this occasion he seems to have told Lhwyd that he had already formed a theory explaining the origin of fossils, then still a matter for debate. In 1690 Lhwyd wrote to a friend stating that Woodward seemed well informed for his age but that he doubted that he was sufficiently experienced to satisfy others on such a debatable matter. This visit to Gloucestershire, however, led Woodward to adopt the study of geology and mineralogy as one of his major interests for the rest of his life. Meanwhile he continued to study medicine and botany.

In 1692, at the age of twenty-seven, Woodward was appointed professor of physic at Gresham College, London. His candidature had been supported by Barwick and Plot, among others. Evidently his abilities had now become more widely known. Barwick stated in his testimonial that Woodward “had made the greatest advance not only in physick, anatomy, botany, . . . but like wise in all other useful learning of any man I ever knew of his age . . .,” and that he was “very much respected upon this account by persons of the greatest judgement and learning. “Not long after his appointment Woodward took up residence at Gresham College. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1693, and in 1695 was awarded the degree of doctor of medicine by special dispensation of Thomas Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury. In 1696 Woodward was granted an M.D. by the University of Cambridge, and he was elected fellow of the College of Physicians in March 1703. As a lecturer in Gresham College his obligations were relatively light, and he established himself as a practicing physician at least as early as 1709 In 1718 he published his only medical work, The State of Physick and of Diseases . . . More Particularly of the Smallpox. The treatment he recommended contradicted the views of some eminent contemporary physicians, notably Richard Mead, and led to a duel between the latter and Woodward.

Woodward continued to reside at Gresham College until his death. He spent much time cataloging his geological and mineralogical specimens, and his museum was often visited by other naturalists, who have left accounts of it. Contemporary records show that, at leastin later life, Woodward, although not without friends, was a man of unattractive character, conceited, quarrelsome, and dogmatic. He quarreled with the council of the Royal Society and made enemies of other naturalists. His contributions to science were neverthelessof considerable importance.

Woodward made a valuable contribution to botanical science as a result of a series of systematic experiments on plant nutrition carried out in 1691 and 1692, a detailed account of which was published by the Royal Society in 1699. The most important result of this investigation was a clear demonstration that the greater part of the water absorbed by a growing plant is exhaled through its pores into the atmosphere. This was the first demonstration of transpiration. Woodward also claimed that the food of plants is not water, but the mineral substances dissolved in the water.

Woodward is chiefly remembered for his contributions to the earth sciences. In his first contribution, Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695), which he claimed was based on his own observations, Woodward assumed that the earth formerly had been submerged beneath a universal deluge, the waters of which had originated in a central abyss within the earth. These waters had dissolved, or disintegrated and held in suspension, all the stony and mineral matter forming the outer crust of the earth. At the same time all the animals and plants then living were submerged in the waters but were not destroyed beyond recognition. From the confused mass that had formed, the matter in suspension, both organic and inorganic, subsided in an order determined, so far as was possible, by the specific gravity of the individual components. Thus a stratigraphic succession was formed in which the specific gravity of both the organic remains and the rock matrix in which they occurred decreased gradually in passing upward in the succession

Woodward asserted unequivocally that the fossil organic remains that had been found in rocks were definitely the remains of living animals or plants, a view not universally held at that time. The term “fossil” was then widely used to denote anything that was dug out of the earth, whether mineral substances or organic remains. In Woodward’s terminology stones and minerals were “native” fossils, and organic remains were “extraneous” fossils.

Woodward had observed that particular rock formations might contain a different assemblage of extraneous fossil forms to those occurring in beds above or below the formation. While he realized that this observation required explanation, it is perhaps not surprising that he failed to recognize the true explanation; and the one he offered was soon criticized.

Woodward’s Essay was widely read both in Great Britain and, in translation, in other European countries. The great Swiss naturalist J. J. scheuchzer was converted by the Essay to beliefin the organic origin of animal remains in rocks; and he translated the Essay into Latin. The information contained in the Essayand in Woodward’s later works also contributed toward establishing that strata throughout the world are, generally speaking, similar in character, a conclusion necessary before any acceptable theory of the origin of the rocks of the crust of the earth could be formulated.

In 1696 Woodward published an anoymous twenty-page pamphlet entitled Brief Instructions for making Observations in All Parts of the World: as Also for Collecting, Preserving, and Sending Over Natural Things. This work is of considerable interest, for even today it might, with little emendation, serve the purpoise for which it was intended. Woodward circulated the work, and by this means and through correspondents in many countries ultimately formed a large collection of fossils and minerals. The value of this collection lay in the fact that he studied his specimens carefully, and later published pioneer attempts to classify both mineral and fossils systematically.

Woodward first discussed minerals in Section 4 of his Essay, where he admitted the difficulties in determining the nature of individual minerals, inevitable at that time, and made greater because he included rocks with his minerals. His first attempt at a classification appeared in 1704, under the head “Fossils,” in John Harris’ Lexicon chemicum Here he divided minerals into six classes: “earths, stones, salts, bitumina, metallick minerals and metals.” This was reprinted with little change, in his Naturalis historia telluris (1714). Later Woodward greatly enlarged this classification. His Flossils of All Kinds Digested Into a Method (1728) contains a large folding table setting out his mineral classification systematically. It retains the six major classes, but adds many more subdivisions. The text includes fifty-six pages in which some two hundred minerals are descriubed, together with their mode of occurrence in some cases. Some specimens were examined under the microscope, and Woodward mentions the characteristics used in making his determinations.

Woodward’s last work, published posthumously in 1729, was An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England. This was a detailed catalogue of his collection of both British and foreign minerals and fossils, some 4,000–5,000 in number, occupying about 600 pages of small print. Localities of specimens are given with, frequently, the names of correspondents who supplied them, and the use of some minerals is discussed.

In this catalogue Woodward enlarged his systematic classification of minerals to include eleven classes. He also classified animal and vegetable fossils, the former into fifteen classes, adn the latter into five groups. His classification of fossils was more elaborate and rational than that used by Lhwyd in his Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia (1699). Woodward’s catalogue was used by geologists for almost a century after its publication. The specimens he collected are now preserved in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge, in their original cases.

Woodward’s last contribution to the advancement of geological science was to leave in his will funds to establish at the University of Cambridge a lectureship bearing his name; this eventually evolved into the Woodwardian chair in geology, the earliest such post in the subject in any British university.

Woodward was the first British author to publish a systematic classification and description of minerals based on his own observations; and he emphasized the importance to his country of its mineral wealth. His classification of fossil organic remains was one of the earliest of its kind. While Woodward does not rank high as an original thinker, his contributions to the advancement of geology were important in their time, in relation to contemporary knowledge. The true value of his work can only be assessed by exdamining all of his geological publications. His works were widely read and must have done much to stimulate interest in the earth sciences.


I. Original Works. For a complete and annotated bibliography of Woodward’s works, including translations, see V. A. Eyles, “John Woodward, F.R.S., F.R.C.P., M.D. (1665–1728): A Bio-bibliographical Account of His Life and Work,” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natrual History,5 (1971), 399–427.

Woodward’s books of geological and mineralogical interest are Essay Toirard a Natural History of the Earth (London, 1695; 2nd ed.; 1702: 3rd ed., 1723); Brief Instructions for Making Observations in All Parts of the World (London, 1696; repr. with an introduction by V. A. Eyles,by the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, London, 1973); Natural History of the Earth, Illustrated, Enlarged and Defended (London, 1726), a translation by B. Holloway, of Naturalis historia, with some other papers by Woodward; A Supplement and Continuation of the Essay Towards aNatural History of the Earth (London, 1726), which is identical with the previous work except for the title; Fossils of All Kinds Digested Into a Method (London 1728); and An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England . . . (London, 1729).

Woodward’s botanical paper, “Some Thoughts and Experiments Concerning vegetation,” is in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,21 (1699), 193–227.

II. Secondary Literature. The principal biographical source is J. Ward, Lives of the Professors of Gresham College (London, 1740), 283–301. See also J. W. Clark and T. McKenny Hughes, Life and Letters of Adam Sedgwick . . . Woodwardian Professor of Geology, 1 (Cambridge, 1890), 166–189, for the establishment of the Woodwardian chair in geology.

For contemporary commentaries on Woodward’s Essay, see J. A [rbuthot], An Examination of Dr. Woodward’s Account of the Deluge,. (London, 1697), and J. Harris, Remarks on Some Late Papers, Relating to the Universal Deluge: and to the Natural History of the Earth (London. 1697). A critical commentary on Woodward’s geological viewsin relation to those of his contemporaries and eighteenth-century successors is in K. B. Collier, Cosmogonies of Our Fathers (New York, 1934; repr. 1968).

Woodward’s quarrel with the Royal Society is described by G. R. De Beer in Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum (London, 1953), 90–91. His botanical work is discussed in H. H. Thomas, “Experimental Plant Biology in Pre-Linnean Times,” in Bulletin of the British Society for the History of Science,2 (1955), 20–21.

Unpublished correspondence and MSS of Woodward are preserved in the archives of the Royal Society of London, and in the British Museum and Bodleian libraries. His correspondence with Cotton Mather and other naturalists in North America is discussed by R. P. Stearns, in Science in the British Colonies of America (Urbana, 1970).

V. A. Eyles

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