Robert B. Woodward and his younger brother, John D.S. Woodward*, both missionaries and ornithologists, were the sons of Richard Woodworth and his wife, Mary Stewart. They trained as missionaries for the Anglican Church and spent an early period in South Africa, probably 1870 to 1875, during which they initially farmed with sheep at Dronkvleispruit, in the Amesfoort district of the southeastern Transvaal. By December 1871 they had settled along the Ifafa (now Fafa) River in southern Natal, where they had a plantation. They were both interested in natural history, particularly ornithology, and collected on the Berea of Durban and on the Natal South Coast. On the Berea they collected the type specimen of the eastern race of the Garden Warbler, Sylvia borin woodwardi, originally named in their honour by R.B. Sharpe of the British Museum (Natural History) in 1877. In 1875 they published their "Notes on the natural history of South Africa", in seven parts, in the British journal Zoologist. The paper contained their observations on various animals of Natal and the Transvaal. After leaving Natal they appear to have gone to North America and at some time published a book Wanderings in America.
Upon their return to Natal they were ordained at Pietermaritzburg in 1881 and became curates at St Luke's mission in Zululand. From 1884 they were loosely associated with Adam's Mission at Amanzimtoti, founded by the American Board for Foreign Missions. During this second period in Natal they spent much time in the Lebombo Mountains and the Ongoye (or Ngoye) Forest, east of Eshowe. Their birds were initially identified by Sharpe, but later by Captain G.E. Shelley*, also at the British Museum (Natural History). They discovered two new birds in the Ongoye Forest, Woodwards' Batis (Batis fratrum) and Woodwards' Barbet (Stactolaema olivacea woodwardi). Both were originally named and described by Shelley. The brothers' observations were written up in the form of a book (Woodward, R.B. & Woodward, J.D.S., Natal birds, including the species belonging to Natal and the eastern districts of the Cape Colony, Pietermaritzburg, 1899, 215 p), which listed 386 species and was the pioneer work on the avifauna of the region. The brothers also published three related papers in The Ibis, "Description of our journey in Zululand with notes on its birds" (1897), "Further notes on the birds of Zululand" (1898), and "On the birds of St Lucia Lake in Zululand" (1900). These papers gave an account of two journeys to Zululand by ox-waggon, with remarks on many of the birds encountered.
Returning from their last journey to Zululand, John Woodward was drowned while crossing the flooding Tugela River. Robert then left Natal for Johannesburg.