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John Woodward (naturalist)

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. Though a leading supporter of the importance of observation and experiment in what we now call science, few of his theories have survived.


  • Life 1
  • Works 2
  • Dr Woodward's Shield 3
  • Bequest 4
  • Works 5
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
  • External Links 8


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.[1] 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. 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.[2] 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 found there; and he began to form the great collection for which he is known. He published An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth and Terrestrial Bodies, especially Minerals, &c. in 1695 (2nd ed. 1702, 3rd ed. 1723), followed by Brief Instructions for making Observations in all Parts of the World (1696). He later wrote 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 fossils were originally generated at sea; but his views of the method of formation of the rocks were unsupported, and were satirized by John Arbuthnot, who ridiculed what he saw as Woodward's classicist method and personal venality. In his elaborate Catalogue, Woodward accurately described his rocks, minerals and fossils.

Woodward's The State of Physick and of Diseases ... Particularly of the Smallpox (1718) arose from a long-running dispute over smallpox with John Freind. Both 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 smallpox arose from an excess of 'bilious salts', whereas Freind saw the causes of the disease as unknowable.[4]

Dr Woodward's Shield

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, provoking a satire by Alexander Pope, written in the same year but not printed until 1733, on the "follies of antiquarianism".[6] Woodward 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, Woodward directed that his personal estate and effects were to be sold, and that land of the yearly value of £150 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. This created the Woodwardian professorship of geology. He also bequeathed his collection of English fossils to the university, to be under the care of the geology lecturer, and these formed the nucleus of the Woodwardian museum at Cambridge.[7] The specimens have since been removed to the new Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.[8]


  • Brief Instructions for making Observations in all Parts of the World, 1696.
  • An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth and Terrestrial Bodies, especially minerals, &c., 3rd Edition, 1723.
  • An Attempt towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England (2 volumes, 1728 and 1729).


  1. ^ ODNB entry: Retrieved 14 October 2011. Subscription required.
  2. ^ Levine, Chapter 1 and throughout
  3. ^ "Woodward, John (WDWT695J)". 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
  7. ^ Smith, J.J. (2010) [1840]. "The Woodwardian Museum". The Cambridge Portfolio, Volume 2. Cambridge University Press. pp. 320–335.  
  8. ^ "The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences Annual Report for the academic year 2007-2008" (PDF). Sedgwick Museum. 2008. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 


  • Clark, J. W. and T. McK. Hughes (1890). Life and Letters of the Rev. Adam Sedgwick.
  • Volume 1
  • Volume 2
  • Levine, Joseph M. (1991). The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • John Woodward in the Dictionary of National Biography -- digitized version

External Links

  • An essay toward a natural history of the earth and terrestrial bodies... (1695) - full digital facsimile from the Linda Hall Library
  • Specimen geographiae physicae Quo agitur de terra... (1704) - full digital facsimile from the Linda Hall Library
  • Naturalis historia telluris (1714) - full digital facsimile from the Linda Hall Library
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