Fossils of All Kinds

cover of Woodward, fossilsOn Wednesday, 21 May, at the Natural History Museum in London, the Palaeontographical Society will be holding a meeting to consider the work of Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (1864–1944), palaeontologist and doyen of fossil fish studies (though, sadly, what made him more widely famous was his acceptance of the ‘Piltdown Man’ remains in Sussex, revealed in the 1950s to have been a hoax).

We are delighted to be working with the Society on the reissue of their publications, including two works by Woodward, The Fossil Fishes of the English Chalk, and The Fossil Fishes of the English Wealden and Purbeck Formations. We have also published Monograph on the Fossil Reptilia of the London Clay (1849–58), by Richard Owen and Thomas Bell, and Monographs on the Fossil Lepadidae, Balanidae and Verrucidae (1851–4), by none other than Charles Darwin, who spent many years from his student days onwards in the patient study and classification of barnacles. More will follow…

A fish from A.S. Woodward's 'Fossil Fishes of the English Chalk'

A fish from A.S. Woodward’s ‘Fossil Fishes of the English Chalk’

But there was another Woodward, two hundred years earlier and not (I believe) a relative: John Woodward (1665 (or 1668)–1728), whose enthusiasm for natural history and especially geology caused him to be plucked from obscurity as a linen-draper’s apprentice by the physician to Charles II, who completed his education, and obtained for him the post of professor of physic at Gresham’s College in London. Among his loyal patients was Sir Richard Steele, but he seems to have made enemies far easily than friends, quarrelling (to the point of duelling) with many of his medical colleagues.

John Woodward

John Woodward

Woodward found time for antiquarian, botanical and geological interests. (He was expelled from the Royal Society after quarrelling with Sir Hans Sloane about plant physiology.) But he was especially interested in fossils, from which he developed a very contentious ‘theory of the earth’, which led to further quarrels and much controversy, involving the likes of John Ray, Leibniz, Newton and Cotton Mather. In the year of his death, 1728, he published Fossils of All Kinds, Digested into a Method, and in his will, he left his collections, in their original cabinets, to Cambridge University, along with the money to endow the first ‘chair of fossils’ in Britain, which Adam Sedgwick held for most of the nineteenth century.


The title page of Woodward's book

The title page of Woodward’s book


Fossils of All Kinds is one of the earliest books we have reissued (along with Double Falshood, possibly by Shakespeare???). The first striking thing about it (which can be seen from the cover image) is that Woodward uses the word ‘fossil’ in its most literal sense: anything dug up (Latin ‘fossum’), so earths and minerals, flint arrowheads, gemstones and precious metals, from fuller’s earth and millstone grit to jacinth and amethyst, silver and gold, emerald and diamonds.



The preface is headed by an engaging woodcut which shows (I assume) the contemplative man of science examining the landscape through his telescope, while a heedless hunter pursues his dogs after a stag through the terrain without pausing to observe his surroundings.

The woodcut at the head of the preface

The woodcut at the head of the preface

Woodward categorises his ‘fossilia’ in tabular form (and in Latin) at the beginning of the work, and expands his definitions in the first part of the book, ‘A methodical distribution of fossils, of all kinds, into their proper classes, viz. earths, stones, salts, bitumens, minerals, metals’. The second part consists of ‘letters relating to the method of fossils’, addressed to Sir Isaac Newton, Sir John Hoskyns (friend of John Evelyn, Robert Hooke and John Aubrey, and president of the Royal Society), and others. There is also a section on how to form your own collection (especially when travelling), including sticking a label on each item, and numbering it, while making a corresponding entry in a notebook, stating what you think the sample to be, where you found it, whether on or below the earth, and the weather conditions at the time.

In Letter II, to Hoskyns, he is concerned to try to disentangle (with many side-swipes at his fellow scientists) the qualities of genuine fossilised animal and vegetable remains from ordinary mineral formations, and to attempt to sort out their very confused nomenclature, which ranges from Plinian and later Latin to the folk-names such as thunder-stone or toad-stone given to individual types throughout Europe.

Stone axe head, called a thunder-stone in early Europe

Stone axe head, called a thunder-stone in early Europe

It is in the final part of the book (‘An addition to the second part of the Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth’) that Woodward offers an explanation for these fossils. He describes the strata to be seen in cliff faces and down mines, noting that shells are found embedded in the stone in very low strata, ‘that there are also lodged in the Strata, Bones, Teeth and other Parts of Quadrupeds, or Land Animals, and oftentimes of such as are not Natives of the Country in which they are thus found’, such as ‘whole Skeletons of very great Elephants’. He sees all this, along with evidence which, he believes, points to a global cataclysm which happened in the spring, and which mixed up the animal and vegetable content of the continents, as the consequence of the biblical Flood.


Woodward was apparently much caricatured as an ignorant dilettante in his own lifetime, but as the ODNB observes, ‘Although he was often wrong in his conclusions, which were usually premature, he was among the early exponents of modern scientific and historical method.’ And this short, oddly arranged book is well worth reading for the numerous fascinating details it provides about the then state of geological and archaeological research, as well as for the pugnacious enthusiasm of its author.


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