S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Woodward, Sir Arthur Smith (palaeontology)

Born: 23 May 1864, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England.
Died: 2 September 1944, Haywards Heath, Sussex, England.

Arthur S. Woodward, British palaeontologist, studied chemistry and geology at Owens College, Manchester. In 1882, at the age of about 18 and before graduating, he was appointed in the Department of Geology of the British Museum (Natural History), where at first he arranged the fossil vertebrates. He also took classes in comparative anatomy and biology at King's College, London. Later he made a special study of fossil fishes and travelled widely to collect and study specimens. This work led to the compilation of his most important publication, A catalogue of the fossil fishes in the British Museum (Natural History), which was published in four volumes between 1889 and 1901. It was a monument of meticulous research and, together with approximately 600 other publications, made him the most prominent palaeoichthyologist of his time. His other publications included A catalogue of British fossil vertebrata (1890, with C.D. Sherborn); and several monographs on the fossil fishes of various British geological formations. In 1892 he was appointed assistant keeper and in 1901 promoted to keeper. That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. His work received world-wide recognition in the form of several awards, honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow, St Andrews, Tartu (in Estonia) and Athens, and a knighthood in 1924, after his retirement. He served as president of several scientific societies. Unfortunately his reputation was marred by his study of and publications on the Piltdown skull, which was shown to be a fraud in the nineteen-fifties.

Although Woodward never visited southern Africa he studied a number of its fossils and published some of his findings here. His first paper relating to the sub-continent was "On two new lepidotoid Ganoids [fish with bony scales] from the early Mesozoic deposits of Orange Free State, South Africa" (Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 1888). This was followed by the description of a new genus of Ganoid fishes which he named after Dr W.G. Atherstone*, who collected the specimens from the Beaufort beds near Colesberg: "On Atherstonia, a new genus of palaeoniscid fishes from the Karroo formation of South Africa..." (Ibid, 1889). Subsequent work was reported in "Further notes on fossil fishes from the Karroo formation of South Africa" (Ibid, 1893). Later he studied the fossil fish remains collected by W. Anderson* during his geological survey of Natal, which he described in "Fossil fish remains from Natal", in the Third report of the Geological Survey of Natal and Zululand (1907, pp. 99-104). The remains consisted of Cretaceous fish teeth from the mouth of the Mpenjati River on the Natal South Coast, and some fossil fish scales from the coal measures of Somkele (near Mtubatuba), Zululand. This work was followed by his "Note on palaeoniscid fish scales from the Ecca shales near Ladysmith" (Annals of the Natal Museum, 1910, Vol. 2, pp. 229-231). The specimens had been found by the geologist F.H. Hatch*. He also described "A new species of Acrolepis obtained by Mr Molyneux from the Sengwe Coalfield" in an appendix to A.J.C. Molyneux's* paper on "The sedimentary deposits of Southern Rhodesia" ( Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1903). On the basis of his contributions to South African palaeontology he was elected an honorary member of the Geological Society of South Africa. Years later, in "A new cave man from Rhodesia..." (Nature, 1921), he proposed the name Homo rhodesiensis (later incorporated in Homo sapiens) for the prehistoric skull and other bones found at Broken Hill (now Kabwe), Zambia.

In 1894 Woodward married Maud L.I. Seeley, daughter of the palaeontologist H.G. Seeley*. He was a strict disciplinarian with a single-minded devotion to duty. His library of nearly 10 000 volumes was bought by University College, London, after his death.

List of sources:
Annals of the Natal Museum, 1910, Vol. 2, paper by Woodward.

Hall, A.L. A bibliography of South African geology to the end of 1920. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoir No. 18, 1922.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Price, R.R.M. Catalogue of publications of the Geological Survey and government publications dealing with earth sciences.... Pretoria: Council for Geoscience, 1997.

Proceedings of the Geological Society of South Africa, 1915, Vol. 18, p. xiii-xix, and 1920, Vol. 23, p. xii-xvi: Lists of members.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa [SESA]. Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Compiled by: C. Plug