William Anderson, eldest son of the antiquarian Dr Joseph Anderson, started studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh but changed his subject to geology. During 1885-1886 he read two papers on fossil remains in Fife, Scotland, before the Geological Society of Edinburgh and both were published in the society's Transactions (1888). In 1886, while still a student, he was employed as a field geologist in the Geological Survey of New South Wales, Australia, where he remained until 1893. During these years he wrote some 20 papers, notes and reports dealing with the geology, palaeontology, ore deposits, goldfields, kitchen middens and stone artefacts of the territory. These writings were all published by the Department of Mines or the Geological Survey of New South Wales. He returned to Scotland in 1893 and from 1894 to October 1896 was attached to the Geological Survey of India as a mining specialist. There he published some notes on Chota Nagpore, a region in the north-eastern part of the country, in the Quarterly Notes of the Geological Survey of India (1895-1896).
In December 1898 Anderson arrived in Natal as the first and only Government Geologist of the Geological Survey of Natal and Zululand, with an office in Pietermaritzburg. He spent the next six years in KwaZulu-Natal on the first systematic geological mapping of the territory. During this time he issued three reports on his work. The First report of the Geological Survey of Natal and Zululand (Pietermaritzburg, 1902) included an historical introduction (with a bibliography) summarising earlier geological work in Natal. It also contained a report and geological map of his reconnaissance survey of Zululand, a report, with map, on a geological survey of the lower Tugela District, and a short article on fossil plants from the St Lucia coalfield. During the next two years he undertook a geological traverse from Pietermaritzburg to Umzinto, a study of the geology of Durban and of the Melmoth district, and an investigation of the coal measures to the west of Molteno for the government of the Cape of Good Hope. This work was described in his second report, issued in 1904. In his third and last report (London, 1907) he described the cretaceous beds of Natal and Zululand, the geology of Alfred County and of parts of Zululand, and the geology of the Lebombo Mountains. Later research has shown his poineering work to be accurate in most details. He showed that the glacial conglomerates of Natal correspond to the Dwyka tillite of the Northern Cape and Transvaal, and that the Natal coal beds correspond to the Ecca beds of the Cape, rather than the Stormberg beds. The fossils collected during the surveys were sent to local and overseas experts who reported on them in Anderson's three reports. Fossil plants from the St. Lucia Bay coal measures and marine fossils from the cretaceous beds of Zululand were described by R. Etheridge*, fossil plants from the Karoo strata by A.C. Seward*, reptillian remains by R. Broom*, fossil fish by A.S. Woodward*, further cretaceous fossils by G.C. Crick*, and mammalian remains of tertiary age by W.B. Scott*. The latter named a species of buffalo after Anderson.
He resigned as Government Geologist of Natal in December 1905, perhaps as a result of his unsuccessful efforts to secure a geological assistant and more office and storage space. He moved to Johannesburg in September 1906 and was employed as a consultant geologist by Eckstein and Co. However, during 1906 and 1907 he seems to have been in Scotland, as his address in the membership lists of the South African Philosophical Society for these years was in Edinburgh. In 1905 he wrote a chapter on the geology of Natal and Zululand for Science in South Africa, a handbook compiled in preparation for the visit of the British Association to South Africa during that year. The next year he reported on the marine teriary fossils of Natal to the British Association, and on the geology of the Bluff at Durban to the Geological Society of South Africa (Transactions, Vol. 9, pp. 111-116). In the latter paper he described the stratigraphy penetrated by a 640 m borehole - unusually deep for the time - sunk by a commercial syndicate in search of coal. His findings established the presence of some 100 m of Upper Cretaceous sediments beneath the Bluff and Bay region. In 1910 he contributed a further paper to the Geological Society of South Africa, on the geology of an area north-west of Nylstroom in the Transvaal (Transactions, Vol. 13, pp. 17-25). His final paper dealt with the zinc and lead ore deposits near Zeerust, North-West (Transactions, 1915, Vol. 18, pp. 118-128).
During his geological work Anderson came accross various archaeological remains. In his first Geological Survey report he described decorated pottery fragments found in a coastal midden in the Lower Tugela District. In 1909, with Prof. G.H. Stanley* as co-author, he described various caves in the Transvaal. Unfortunately the human skeletal remains that they found were sent to Britain and potentially valuable archaeological evidence was lost. In 1911 Anderson contributed an article "On the geology of the Drakensberg range" to the Natal descriptive guide and official handbook (pp. 349-358), which includes a discussion of the formation of cave shelters and the rock paintings they contain.
Anderson retired in 1913 as a result of health problems and after returning to Edinburgh settled in Sydney, Australia. Though he did some further geological work there he died two years later. He was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1899 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1905. In South Africa he joined the South African Philosophical Society in 1900 and remained a member when it became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908. In 1901 and 1902 he acted as an examiner in geology for the University of the Cape of Good Hope. According to Maud (1999) he merits the title "Father of KwaZulu-Natal geology". He has been described as "a minute and accurate observer, a pertinacious man, of reserved demeanour except to a few of his most intimate acquaintances" (Etheridge, 1915, p. 480).