John Woodward (naturalist)

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John Woodward

John Woodward (1 May 1665 – 25 April 1728) was an English naturalist, antiquarian and geologist, and founder by bequest of the Woodwardian Professorship of Geology at Cambridge University. As a leading physician who had never been to university, Woodward was a leading figure on the "Modern" side in the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns in early 18th century England, on the medical and other fronts.[1] Though a leading English supporter of the importance of observation and experiment in what we now call science, none of his numerous new theories have stood the test of time.


Woodward was born on 1 May 1665, or possibly 1668, in a village (possibly Wirksworth) in Derbyshire; his family may have been from Gloucestershire and his mother's maiden surname Burdett.[2] At the age of sixteen he went to London, where he was initially apprenticed to a linen draper, but later studied medicine with Dr. Peter Barwick, physician to Charles II. In 1692 he was appointed Gresham Professor of Physic. In 1693 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1695 was made M.D. by Archbishop Tenison and also by Cambridge,[3] and in 1702 became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He died on 25 April 1728, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


In 1699, John Woodward published his water culture (hydroponics) experiments with spearmint. He found that plants in less-pure water sources grew better than plants in distilled water.

While still a student he became interested in botany and natural history, and during visits to Gloucestershire his attention was attracted by the fossils that are abundant in many parts of that county; and he began to form the great collection with which his name is associated. His views were set forth in An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth and Terrestrial Bodies, especially Minerals, &c. (1695; 2nd ed. 1702, 3rd ed. 1723). This was followed by Brief Instructions for making Observations in all Parts of the World (1696). He was author also of An Attempt towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England (2 vols., 1728 and 1729). In these works he showed that the stony surface of the earth was divided into strata, and that the enclosed shells were originally generated at sea; but his views of the method of formation of the rocks were entirely erroneous. Indeed, they were satirized very effectively by John Arbuthnot, who consistently ridiculed Woodward's heavily classicist method and what Arbuthnot saw as personal venality. In his elaborate Catalogue he described his rocks, minerals and fossils in a manner far in advance of the age.

His The State of Physick and of Diseases ... Particularly of the Smallpox (1718) arose from a fierce dispute over smallpox which had been going on for many years, with John Freind his leading adversary. Both freely accused the other of killing their patients (in the modern view a judgement that few doctors of the age can escape). Woodward claimed that his experimental evidence showed that the disease arose from an excess of "bilious salts", whereas Freind saw the causes of the disease as unknowable[4]

Dr Woodward's Shield[edit]

A celebrated shield, bought by John Conyers from a London ironmonger, was sold after his death by one of his daughters to Woodward.[5] Dr Woodward's Shield, now in the British Museum, is today recognised as a classicising French Renaissance buckler of the mid-16th century, perhaps sold from the Royal Armouries of Charles II, but was thought by Woodward and others to be an original Roman work. Woodward published in 1713 a treatise on the shield which provoked a satire by Alexander Pope, written in the same year but not printed until 1733, on the "follies of antiquarianism".[6] He is mentioned twice in Pope's Fourth Satire of Dr. John Donne, and is one candidate for the original of "Mummius" in Pope's The Dunciad.


By his will he directed that his personal estate and effects were to be sold, and that land of the yearly value of one hundred and fifty pounds was to be purchased and conveyed to the University of Cambridge. A lecturer was to be chosen, and paid £100 a year to read at least four lectures every year, on some one or other of the subjects treated of in his Natural History of the Earth. Hence arose the Woodwardian professorship of geology. To the same university he bequeathed his collection of English fossils, to be under the care of the lecturer, and these formed the nucleus of the Woodwardian museum at Cambridge. The specimens have since been removed to the new Sedgwick museum.


A full account of Woodward's life and views and a portrait of him are given in the Life and Letters of the Rev. Adam Sedgwick, by J. W. Clark and T. McK. Hughes, where it is mentioned that his paper, read before the Royal Society in 1699, entitled Some Thoughts and Experiments concerning Vegetation, shows that the author should be ranked as a founder of experimental plant-physiology, for he was one of the first to employ the method of water-culture, and to make refined experiments for the investigation of plant life.

  1. ^ Levine, Chapter 1 and throughout
  2. ^ ODNB entry: Retrieved 14 October 2011. Subscription required.
  3. ^ "Woodward, John". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ Levine, p. 12 (quote) and Chapter 1
  5. ^ Levine, p. 151.
  6. ^ The Woodward Shield / Dr Woodward's Shield, British Museum Collection database. The episode is the subject of the book: Joseph M. Levine (1977), Dr Woodward's Shield: History, Science and Satire in Augustan England, which is probably the best modern source on Woodward generally

External links[edit]