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date: 16 August 2022

Woodville, Williamfree


Woodville, Williamfree

  • Deborah Brunton

Woodville, William (1752–1805), physician and botanist, was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, the fourth of the six children of William Woodville (1714–1758), and Jane Fearon (1723–1804). He came from a family of well-to-do Quakers, and was initially educated at a local grammar school. He began his medical training in 1767 with a short apprenticeship to William Birtwhistle, an apothecary. He later matriculated at Edinburgh University, graduating MD in 1775 with a thesis on irritable fibres. Woodville returned to Cumberland to practise in Papcastle, until a tragic incident in 1778 interrupted his career. One night he fired a gun through a window and killed a man who had been creating a disturbance in his garden. Although this was generally accepted as an accident, Woodville was disowned by his Quaker meeting and left the county to set up practice in Denbigh. By 1782 he had moved to London: there his career flourished. He was appointed physician to the Middlesex Dispensary, admitted as a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in August 1784, and became a member of the Physical Society at Guy's Hospital.

Woodville's medical career was distinguished by his contributions to the prevention of smallpox. In 1791 he was appointed physician to the London Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St Pancras, a charitable institution offering care to smallpox victims and free inoculation. Woodville became a staunch supporter of the procedure: in 1797 he published a pamphlet aimed at a popular audience, advocating inoculation. By this time he was also writing a major history of inoculation, probably intended as a triumphal history of the steady growth of the procedure, with an emphasis on the role of the hospital in encouraging inoculation and thus helping to control smallpox. The first of the projected two volumes of the History of the Inoculation of the Smallpox (1796) described inoculation techniques used in the Near East and the Far East, its introduction to Britain, and its gradual popularization up to 1770. However, history caught up with the project. In 1799 the second volume was announced as ready for the press but it never appeared, as the previous year Edward Jenner had announced his discovery of vaccination, which attracted considerable attention: although the older procedure was still widely used, the book would have lost much of its original purpose.

Woodville quickly switched his allegiance to vaccination and played an important role in establishing its merits. News of Jenner's discovery had aroused interest among medical men, but his source of vaccine had been lost and further experiments with the new procedure were therefore impossible. Woodville remedied this in January 1799, when he was told of an outbreak of cowpox in a London dairy. Having compared the lesions among the milkers with Jenner's illustration, Woodville took some fluid for use as vaccine at the Smallpox Hospital. The results of this action, the first large-scale trial of vaccination, were published as the Report of a Series of Inoculations for the Variolae vaccinae or Cow Pox (1799). Its case histories of two hundred vaccinations, most of which were subsequently tested by inoculation, did much to prove the efficacy of the new practice. However, the Report also cast the first doubts as to the merits of vaccination. Woodville noted that vaccination frequently produced smallpox-like eruptions which he believed might communicate smallpox. This undermined one of the principal advantages of the new practice over inoculation—patients did not have to be isolated. Woodville's observation sparked off a dispute between Woodville and Jenner. Jenner blamed Woodville's results on contaminated vaccine: Woodville responded with his Observations on Cow-Pox (1800) arguing that hybridization between cowpox and smallpox was impossible. Thereafter the dispute fizzled out, unresolved. Relations between the two pioneers were partially restored by mutual friends, particularly John Coakley Lettsom, but never became cordial, Jenner being suspicious of any potential rival to his authority as the leading expert on vaccination. Woodville continued to promote vaccination through his practice at the Smallpox Hospital, and later briefly held a post as vaccinator to the Royal Jennerian Society, a charity offering free vaccination. In 1800 he travelled to France to assist in the introduction of the procedure there.

Woodville had a deep interest in botany. He was elected to the Linnean Society in 1791, and maintained a botanic garden within the grounds of the Smallpox Hospital. Between 1790 and 1794 he published Medical Botany, a four-volume catalogue of plants, based on the pharmacopoeia of the royal colleges of physicians in London and Edinburgh. Each plant was described by both its botanical characteristics and its therapeutic uses, and illustrated with an engraving.

Woodville died on 26 March 1805 at the Smallpox Hospital, having been moved from his house in Ely Place, Holborn, at his special request. His cause of death is variously recorded as smallpox (which seems unlikely, given his constant exposure to infection), dropsy, and a chronic pulmonary complaint. Woodville received a Quaker funeral and was buried at Bunhill Fields on 4 April. His library was sold at Sothebys on 3 July 1805.


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  • matriculation records, U. Edin. L., university archives
  • H. Lonsdale, The worthies of Cumberland, 6 (1875)
  • Pardshaw monthly meeting, Cumbria AS
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  • N. Branwhite, group portrait, stipple, pubd 1801 (Institutors of the Medical Society of London; after S. Medley), BM
  • L. F. Abbott, oils, RCP Lond.
  • A. Ansiaux, portrait, repro. in A. H. Driver, Catalogue of engraved portraits in the Royal College of Physicians of London (1952)
  • W. Bond, stipple (after L. F. Abbott), Wellcome L.
  • L. Perrot, portrait, repro. in A. H. Driver, Catalogue of engraved portraits in the Royal College of Physicians of London (1952)
  • Woolnoth, line engraving (after T. H. Shepherd), Wellcome L.
  • aquatint silhouette, Wellcome L.
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Religious Society of Friends, London