28 January 2013

The people of The Link: Arthur Smith Woodward

Several of the characters in my novel The Link are drawn from history. Here is the first of the mini-bios for some of them:

Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944) 
He’s Stephen McKay’s boss, sure, and a formidable intellect, but he’s also the man you love to hate. So who was the real Smith Woodward?

Arthur Smith Woodward was born 23 May 1864 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, the elder son of Edward Woodward, silk dyer, and Margaret Smith, whose maiden name Arthur added to his surname. As a child, he collected wild flowers, beetles, and seaweeds. A fossil he was given on holiday led to an interest in geology.

His first job on graduation from Manchester’s Owens College in 1882 at the age of 18 was in the geology department of the British Museum (Natural History) which had just moved to its new home on Cromwell Road in South Kensington. The remarkable building would serve as his professional home for the rest of his life.

Woodward’s first task was arranging the Museum’s collections of fossil vertebrates for exhibition. Fascinated by two newly-acquired collections of fishes, he began studying fossil fish himself, taking special classes in the subject. To encourage his new-found enthusiasm, the museum put him to work cataloguing all the fossil fishes in the department. So began Woodward’s life work: this four-volume catalog (1889 – 1901) would make him the greatest palaeoichthyologist of his time. It was the first application of evolutionary theory to the field and for a century it remained a standard reference. Compiling the famous catalog also became a roadmap for his professional life: he learned a number of European languages, travelled widely in search of new material, connected with palaeontologists around the world and generally expanded the Museum’s collections to the point where foreign researchers routinely travelled to visit his department.

In 1892 Woodward was appointed Assistant Keeper (director) of the Department of Geology and in 1901 he became its Keeper. He was only 28. He would hold the post for the next twenty-three years. By clever delegation of the day-to-day duties, he was able to continue his studies, authoring 150 papers on fossil fishes alone.

In 1894 he married Maud Seeley (1874–1963), daughter of the geologist Harry Govier Seeley. They had one son and one daughter.

Woodward was not an easy man to get to know: he was variously described as a strict disciplinarian and a humourless martinet. At the same time, he could be very kind and considerate to his junior staff. His single-minded dedication to his work was inspirational to his colleagues and staff but could no doubt also be annoying at times. He had few outside interests, yet he is known to have appreciated music and loved taking his children to the pantomime. (There are photos of his son Cyril at the Piltdown site during Woodward’s summer digs with Dawson.) Teilhard de Chardin observed that Woodward’s “apparent coldness” would crack when an item of interest was found during a dig, and he would suddenly display the “enthusiasm of a youth.”

During his working life he received numerous honours, including Fellow of the Royal Society (1901) and the Prix Cuvier of the French Académie des Sciences (1918). He served as president of a number of scientific societies including the Geological Society (1904) and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow, St Andrews, Tartu, and Athens. He was knighted in 1924.

After his forced retirement from the Museum in 1924 at the age of 60, the Woodwards moved to Haywards Heath, West Sussex, just 10 miles from Piltdown. He joined the Sussex Archaeological Society and served on its council for 18 years (two of them as President). He continued to pursue an active life, participating in archaeology organizations, travelling with his wife and excavating, including fruitless hours at the Piltdown pit.

He told his friends that he had hoped to be made Director of the Museum. It has been said that he was so angry at being passed over for the post that he never again entered the building or spoke to anyone still on the staff.

Arthur Smith Woodward died peacefully at his home in Haywards Heath on 2 September 1944. His book about Piltdown Man and its significance, The Earliest Englishman, was published posthumously in 1948. It contained not a hint that he harboured the slightest suspicion of the Piltdown pieces. That same year a 37-year-old anthropologist, Kenneth Oakley, proposed applying a newly-developed fluorine test to date the Piltdown fossils more accurately, the test that started Piltdown Man’s long slide towards infamy. So intimately was he associated with the Piltdown finds, Woodward’s reputation would be tainted forever by the resulting scandal.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Doug. Thanks so much for posting this mini-bio. It answers a question I had, namely was Arthur ever determined later to have known of or have abetted the hoax? It seems not.