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  William Woodville
1752 - 1805

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 spirit".

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, 309-310. 1968.
  • 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
July, 2003 

Digitized Works:
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