William Woodville, physician and botanist, was born in 1852 at Cockermouth,
in Cumberland. He received a classical education, spent some time as an apothecary’s
apprentice, and then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He gained an
M.D. degree in 1775 after which he traveled on the Continent before entering private
practice in Scotland. In 1782, Woodville moved to London where he held the post of
physician in the Middlesex Dispensary until 1791 when he was appointed physician in
the Smallpox and Innoculation Hospital in St. Pancras. In the same year, he was made
a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, an honor directly related to his botanical work
which included the establishment of a garden at King’s Cross, near the hospital.
The Fellowship to the Society was conferred just a year after the publication of
the first volume of Woodville’s great work on medical botany. The full title of this
classic describes its scope and purpose-"Medical Botany, containing Systematic
and General Descriptions, with plates, of all the Medicinal Plants, indigenous and
exotic, comprehended in the Catalogues of the Materia Medica, as published by the
Royal Colleges of Physicians of London and Edinburgh: accompanied with a
circumstantial Detail of their medicinal Effects, and of the diseases in which they
have been most successfully employed."
The second volume was published in 1792 and the third in 1793. A supplement, which
included the plants not listed in the Materia Medica, appeared in 1794. Thirty-eight
years later, when the third edition, revised and with comments by the botanist,
William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), appeared, it had grown to five volumes. The
illustrations in the book were nearly all drawn from living plants or herbarium
specimens, and were the work of the artist, James Sowerby (1757-1822). Medical
Botany has been described as "the best work in English on medical herbs
of its time" and as having been written "in a thoroughly scientific
Woodville’s other major work was never completed, but the first volume of The
History of the Inoculation of the Small Pox, in Great Britain... was published in
1796. The second volume was abandoned due to the discovery of the vaccination method
by Edward Jenner (1749-1823) in 1796. Woodville was initially skeptical of Jenner’s
claims for vaccination, but after some controversy and difficulties in clinical
trials, he became a convert and supported the new technique for smallpox prevention.
Woodville was a lifelong member of the Society of Friends, and after his death at
the hospital on March 26, 1805, he was buried in the Friends’ burial ground at
Bunhill-fields. He was one of a number of very eminent Quaker physicians who lived
and worked in Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Norris, J., "William Woodville, M. D.". The Cyclopaedia of
Arts, Sciences, and Literature. v. 38. 1819.
- Arthur Raistrick, Quakers in Science and Industry. pp. 269-270,
- H. S. Redgrove, "Medical Botany at the close of the Eighteenth
Century". The Gardeners’ Chronicle. v. 97:306-307. 1935.
- Paul Saunders, Edward Jenner. The Cheltenham Years, 1795-1823. 1982.
Robert F. Erickson