Frederic Wood Jones

anatomist, naturalist, peripatetic

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on June 30, 2022

The History of Medicine Library holds an extensive collection of the works of Frederic Wood Jones, including 58 hand drawn illustrations and original correspondence held as part of the Edward Ford bequest. Professor Edward Ford, former curator of the History of Medicine Library, came under the influence of Wood Jones when he was lecturer in Histology at Melbourne University (1934-7) at the same time Wood Jones was Chair of Anatomy (1930-1937). Who was Frederic Wood Jones?

Ford described him thus:

This was the Wood Jones era...[you]could not fail to become an ardent disciple of this diamond-minded, silver tongued, charming scholar who had a way of turning casual lovers of things into enthusiasts. For him, medical history was something to be used. It was the background to present day doings. And he lamented the many who thought as he said that human knowledge started the day before yesterday.

Born in London in 1879, Wood Jones had three stints in the antipodes. After qualifying in medicine, at 27 he accepted a position as Medical Officer to the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company on the Cocos Keeling Islands:

'The charm of so remote a spot, the romance of the story and of its proprietor and the fact that it was Darwin's atoll were the reasons for my residence . .. the absence of any real medical duties gave me ample opportunities for doing those things that had been the real reason for my visit.'
As a result of the lack of medical work, he was able to study the coral of the atoll and produced a book from his field work, Coral and atolls

Romance and adventure were themes of Wood Jones' life. No sooner had he returned from the Cocos in 1907 he was invited by another eminent atonomist, Grafton Elliot Smith, to join the archaeological survey of Nubia, prior to the raising of the Aswan Dam and flooding of the valley. On his return to London, without any skills as a practising doctor he moved into teaching anatomy. He excelled in lecturing and as an orator, and in 1920 succeeded Archibald Watson as Chair of Anatomy at University of Adelaide. During this period he made extensive scientific excursions and field trips into the bush forming a particular love for Kangaroo Island.

Fig.1 - Illustration held in HoM Library.

His book 'The mammals of South Australia' became a classic, with his own illustrations completing the volume.

On his way to a new posting in Hawaii in 1926, his final Adelaide lectures addressed his ongoing and growing concerns for the indigenous Australians:

'The white colonists of Australia, Professor Wood Jones said, had contracted a huge debt, and were under a moral obligation of no less magnitude than that of making some reparation for the filching of a whole vast continent from its real owners'.

'One day, and one day very soon, Australia must shake off her apathy and give up pretence in this matter of protecting her aborigines. She must abandon the self deception that four black lines on a map constitute a reserve; and that all has been done in the matter. If her reserves are not realities; if her contribution to the warfare of a subject race, from whom she has taken a great continent, is to consist in no more than doles of flour and blankets, then she will deserve what she will surely earn—the scorn of more enlightened nations and the contempt of posterity'.

In 1930, Wood Jones returned to Australia. With assistance from the recently formed Australasian College of Surgeons, Melbourne University managed to raise the necessary funds to attract him to Chair of Anatomy where he succeeded Richard Berry. Berry was a leading eugenicist who undertook cranial and other physical measurement studies, advancing the idea that they indicated who had superior racial characteristics. In a period when physical anthropology was prominent, public opinion and government policy of the day were often influenced by his research. Working class and indigenous people were often Berry's targets. Wood Jones directly refuted Berry's claims, frequently in the daily press:

'For the worshippers of the large brain claim too much, and that is why I suspect them; and many of their claims are false, and that is why I range myself in opposition to them'.

Dr. Barry Christophers who wrote extensively about Wood Jones said that FWJ was influenced by humanitarian Mary Bennett:

'Her work, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being (1930), influenced Frederick Wood Jones...she was the first one to explain Aboriginal lifestyle in a way that was understandable to Europeans."

While in Melbourne, Wood Jones also helped to form the McCoy Society for Field Investigation and Research and became its first President, leading students on field trips to various parts of Victoria, while also raising public consciousness of the ecological destruction he witnessed:

'All that can be said for the white that by a thoroughly vandalistic policy he has made a profit out of the destruction of native fauna and flora'

At the end of his term in Melbourne a piece entitled 'the Spirit of adventure' appeared in the Medical Journal of Australia in which Wood Jones lamented the state of University education and education generally in Australia. He maintained that a spirit of intellectual adventure was sadly lacking in the teaching of students: (MJA Sept 25, 1937).

'A universally literate population is doubtless a triumph for universal free education but a population that is prepared to accept its every opinion ready-made from the printed page is surely not a wholly desirable factor in democracy'

Frederick Wood Jones was unorthodox in many ways, provocative, stimulating and courting of controversy. He was one of the greatest science communicators of his time with 15 books and over 300 published articles. In the conservative world of academia he retained his individualism and sense of adventure until his death in 1954 at the age of 75:

'In truth I think we are sinking to the common level of standardised loss of individuality. Few are prepared to let their fellow know they are non-conformists in a world that accepts commonplace mediocrity as a hallmark of respectability'.