Lives of the fellows

John Woodward

b.1 May 1665 d.26 Apr 1728
FRS(1693) MD(1695) FRCP(1702/3)

John Woodward, M.D., was born in Derbyshire, on the 1st May, 1665; and educated at a country school, where he acquired a good knowledge of Latin, and made considerable progress in Greek. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a linen draper in London, but he soon withdrew from that employment; when, following the dictates of his inclination, he devoted himself solely to study. Whilst thus occupied, he made the acquaintance of Dr. Peter Barwick, an accomplished physician and distinguished Fellow of our College, who received him into his house ; and during four years gave him instruction in anatomy, medicine, and the collateral sciences. He then visited Sir Ralph Dutton, at his seat at Sherborne, where he began those observations and collections relating to the present state of the earth’s surface, which laid the foundation of his subsequent geological writings. Woodward’s progress was so satisfactory to his patron that, through his influence and recommendation he was, on the 13th January, 1692, elected to the Gresham professorship of physic. In the following year he was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society, and was often elected on the Council; but in 1710 was expelled that body, for conduct unbecoming a gentleman. Sir Hans Sloane was reading a paper of his own composition, when Woodward made some grossly insulting remarks. Sir Hans complained, and, moreover, stated that this was not the only occasion on which Dr. Woodward’s conduct towards himself had been offensive. Woodward was required by the other members to make an apology, but refused, and was therefore expelled. Sir Isaac Newton was in the chair when the question of expulsion was agitated ; and when it was pleaded in Woodward’s favour that he was a good natural philosopher, Sir Isaac remarked that, " in order to belong to that society, a man ought to be a good moral philosopher, as well as a natural one." Dr. Woodward brought an action against the council, with the view of being reinstated in his place, but was unsuccessful.

He was created doctor of medicine by Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury, 4th February, 1695 ; and was incorporated on that degree at Cambridge, as a member of Pembroke college. He was admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians 25th June, 1698 ; and a Fellow 22nd March, 1702-3 ; was Censor in 1703, 1714; and delivered the Gulstonian lectures " on the Bile and its uses," in January, 1710-1. Dr. Woodward was more distinguished as a natural philosopher than as a physician. His practice, according to his contemporary and neighbour, Dr. Daniel Turner, consisted principally of " vomits and canthartics administered alternately, de die in diem, till the sick man grows tired, or, being quite spent, is forced to give over." Turner, who was himself a practitioner of some notoriety, expresses his surprise that the " great naturalist " should have prevailed with so many of the softer sex to run this vomiting gauntlet for six weeks or two months successively. Woodward was indeed but an indifferent practitioner, and is only remembered, in his professional capacity, by his controversy with Mead and Friend, on the utility of purging in the secondary fever of small-pox. In this encounter he suffered no less in reputation than in body. The ire of each party was excited. Mead and Woodward, meeting accidentally under the gate of Gresham college, drew their swords. Woodward’s foot slipped and he fell. " Take your life !" exclaimed Mead. " Anything but your physic," replied Woodward, with cutting sarcasm. This affair has been somewhat maliciously commemorated by Ward, in the engraved frontispiece to his " History of the Gresham Professors."

Dr. Woodward’s merits as a geologist, were, however, of a high order ; and his " Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth," published in 1695, when he was only thirty years of age, attracted much attention, and gained him considerable reputation. " Among the contemporaries of Hooke and Ray," says Mr. Lyell, "Woodward, a professor of medicine, had acquired the most extensive information respecting the geological structure of the crust of the earth." He left to the university of Cambridge his valuable collection of fossils, with funds for the maintenance of the collection, and the endowment of a professorship on his favourite subject, geology. The formation of this museum was regarded by Dr. Whewell as one of the most remarkable occurrences in the progress of descriptive geology in England. The Woodwardian museum still subsists, a monument of the sagacity with which its author so early saw the importance of such a collection.

Dr. Woodward died of a decline, at his apartments in Gresham college, 26th April, 1728, in the 63rd year of his age ; and was buried in Westminster abbey, where a handsome monument of white marble bears the following inscription to his memory :—
Johannis Woodward
medici celeberrimi,
philosophi nobilissimi,
ingenium et doctrinam
scripta, per terrarum feré orbem
liberalitatem verò et patriæ caritatem
Academia Cantabrigiensis, muni-
ficientia ejus aucta,
opibus ornata,
in perpetuum declarabit.
Natus kal. Maii, A.D. 1665 ;
obiit 7 kal. Maii, 1728.
Richardus King,
tribunus militum, fabrûmque præfectus,
amico optime de se merito
D. S. P.(1)

Dr. Woodward was a valued contributor to the Philosophical Transactions, and published therein his discovery of the secret of making Prussian blue. His separate works are as follows:—
An Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth and Terrestrial Bodies, especially minerals; as also of the Sea, Rivers, and Springs; with an Account of the Universal Deluge, and of the Effects that it had upon the Earth. 8vo. Lond. 1695.
Remarks upon the Ancient and Present state of London, occasioned by some Roman Urns, Coins, and other Antiquities lately discovered. 8vo. Lond. 1713.
Naturalis Historia Telluris illustrata et aucta, una cum ejusdem Defensione, præsertim contra nuperas objectiones Camerarii. 8vo. Lond. 1714.
The State of Physick and Diseases, with an Inquiry into the Causes of the late increase of them, but more particularly of the Small-pox, with some Considerations upon the new practice of Purging in that Disease. 8vo. Lond. 1718.

William Munk

[(1) For much in this brief sketch I am indebted to Mr. Weld’s History of the Royal Society]

(Volume II, page 6)

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