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Woodward, John

1. Dates
Born: Derbyshire, 1 May 1665 One passage in one letter by Woodward seems to place his birth rather in 1668.
Died: London, April 1728
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 63
2. Father
Occupation: Unknown
Woodward was said to be the son of a man of good family. Whatever that may mean, he was apprenticed, without university education, to a linen draper at the age of sixteen.
The father need not have been poor; clearly he was not affluent.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: No University
A country school where he did acquire a command of Latin and some Greek.
No university education; he learned medicine by apprenticeship in the household of Peter Barwick, physician of the King, 1684-8.
M.D., awarded by special dispension of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 1695, what was called a Lambeth degree.
M.D., granted by Cambridge, 1697. I do not list either of the M.D.'s.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Woodward considered his theory of the earth to be a defense of Scripture. At his death he received the final sacrament of the church and professed his Anglican faith, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural History, Geology, Paleontology
Subordinate: Mineralogy, Botany, Medicine
Woodward's interests ranged very widely over natural history and antiquities. On excursions, which started early in his medical career, he studied both plants and minerals, and especially fossils. Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth, 1695, which established his reputation, advanced a theory to explain stratification (and the fossils embedded in strata) by the deposit of debris out of the deluge. He insisted that fossils were the remains of once living animals and plants, and he related fossils to specific rock formations. He formed a large collection of fossils and minerals, many of which were sent to him from abroad. He attempted to classify them--Naturalis historia telluris, 1714; Fossils of All Kinds Digested into a Method, 1728, which is primarily a classification of minerals (included in the generic term "fossil"); An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England, posthumous, 1729, dealing with minerals as well. He also wrote an unpublished treatise on the natural history of ores and metals. He is considered the first major figure in English geology.
Woodward carried out systematgic experimentation on plant nutrition in the early 90s, demonstrating for the first time that water taken in by the roots is exhaled (or transpired as the word is now). An article on this was published in the Philosophical Transactions.
Woodward published one medical work, The State of Physick and of Diseases, 1718, in the he condemned the method of treatment of smallpox used by Mead and Freind. A bitter quarrel, not the only one in Woodward's career, followed. He lectured on the bile to the Royal College of Physicians. He is said to have been recognized as an authority on comparative anatomy. He did leave behind a paper more or less on it, but that is all the evidence I find.
He also worked some in meteorology, relating a rising barometer to rainy weather.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia
Secondary: Patronage
Apprenticed to a linen draper, 1680. Dr. Peter Barwick discovered him, took him into his home for four years (1684- 8), and educated him in medicine and much else.
He pursued a good practice in London throughout his career. Munk, however, makes very derogatory comments about his capacity as a physician.
Professor of physic at Gresham College, 1692-1728.
8. Patronage
Types: Physician, Eccesiastic Official, Government Official
Peter Barwick, physician of the King. Barwick, together with Plot and others, stood behind the Gresham appointment.
Created M.D. by Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was his supporter in the controvery about fossils and the deluge.
Woodward dedicated his Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth, 1695, to Sir Robert Southwell, an eminent governmental servant who was then President of the Royal Society. Southwell had been one of those involved in obtaining the Greshman appointment for Woodward, and he remained a supporter of Woodward's theories of the earth.
Woodward did not dedicate all that much. He did dedicate one secton, on the classification of minerals, of Naturalis historia telluris, 1714, to Newton. In view of what happened at the Royal Society in 1710, I am not able to count this as patronage--possibly angling for patronage, but not the realiation of it.
Woodward bequeathed his collection to Cambridge together with money to found the Woodwardian Professorship of Geology.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Medical Practice
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Medical College
Informal Connections: Friendship with Peter Barwick and Robert Southwell. At one time he was also friendly with Robert Plot and Edward Lhwyd, but Woodward was arrogant, touchy, and quarrelsome, and he made enemies of other naturalists.
Correspondence with Scheuchzer, Lister, Hearne, Leibniz, Cotton Mather, and others. Levine has a lot of detail about Woodward's extensive correspondence, centering on fossils. The correspondence (now located at the Royal Society, the British Library, the Bodleian, some library in Zurich) was very wide. He would make an excellent subject for a study of informal circles in the scientific community.
Royal Society, 1693. Frequently on the Council.
Royal College of Physicians, 1703; Censor, 1703, 1714. Gulstonian Lecturer, 1711.
  1. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 6.2, 4325-34.
  2. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 21 894-6. John Ward, The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College, (London, 1740), pp. 283-301.
  3. William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1878), 2, 6-10.
  4. Joseph M. Levine, Dr. Woodward's Shield, (Berkeley, 1977).
  5. V.A. Eyles, "John Woodward, F.R.S. (1665-1728) Physician and Geologist," Nature, 206 (1965), 868-70.
  6. _____, "John Woodward, F.R.S., F.R.C.P., M.D. (1665-1728): a Bio- bibliographical Account of his Life and Work," Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 5 (1971), 399-427.
  7. H.H. Thomas, "Experimental Plant Biology in Pre-Linnean Times," Bulletin of the British Society for the History of Science, 2 (1955), 15-22.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
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