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Arthur Smith Woodward - His Life and Influence on Modern Vertebrate Palaeontology


This is a most useful, and handsome, volume. Using the resources of the Natural History Museum in London, where ASW (1864-1944) was Keeper of Geology 1901-1924, it lists ASW’s incredible bibliography of 742 entries, starting with his Trip from Crewe to North Wales, which he printed himself in 1878. This volume, and its online supplements, chart both ASW’s life and the important legacies of his museum work, and his wife's contributions and memories.

Its second part deals in greater detail with his scientific work; on both fish and tetrapods, and his contributions to Antarctic, Australian, and South America geology. It gives a mere nod to ASW’s sad work on human evolution, which was sullied by his being taken in by that remarkable impostor Charles Dawson (1864-1916) at Piltdown. New light now shows there was a) only a single perpetrator (pointing only at Dawson, Geology Today, Sept-Oct 2016) and b) that Dawson’s earlier work in Sussex was already of doubtful authenticity (Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. 151, 2013). One of the main rationales of this book was to publicise the great contributions ASW made to vertebrate palaeontology.

But problems remain. In 1980, Albert E Gunther claimed ASW was ‘from a cultured family of silk traders in Manchester [sic], enabling him to devote his life to science untroubled by pecuniary difficulties’. This volume counter-claims ‘the family were comfortably off, but by no means wealthy’. ASW’s own record of his meteoric rise in Victorian science gives no clues. But ASW ‘s life may not have been that easy, when we consider his extended family.

His wife, Maud Leonora Ida, née Seeley (1873-1963), contributes her 122-page Memories [online at]. She was the daughter of palaeontologist Harry Govier Seeley (1839-1909). Her mother Eleanor Jane, née Mitchell (1845-1925), was granted a civil list pension in 1910: “her husband having merited the financial gratitude of his country by his useful discoveries in science”.

Both Mitchells and Seeleys had to face straightened circumstances. Eleanor’s brother, busy gathering data on William Smith (1769-1839), was unable to complete it through financial crises. And both Harry’s father and grandfather were declared ‘insolvent’ (when not being ‘in trade’ meant much more draconian treatment than mere ‘bankruptcy’).

ASW’s own fine career in science during Victorian times suggests that such careers were still not being adequately rewarded.

Reviewed by Hugh Torrens

ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD - HIS LIFE AND INFLUENCE ON MODERN VERTEBRATE PALAEONTOLOGY, edited by Z JOHANSON, P M BARRETT, M RICHTER AND M SMITH, 2016. Published by the Geological Society of London (SP 430) 362pp (hbk) ISBN 978-1-86239-741-5. List Price: £110.00.  Fellows’ Price: £55.00.  W: