Joseph Henry Woodger

Abstract

Joseph Henry Woodger (1894–1981) was one of the foremost theoretical biologists of the twentieth century. Starting out his career as an experimental embryologist and cytologist, Woodger became increasingly interested in the conceptual foundations of biology. Eventually, he abandoned all empirical research so that he could devote himself fully to studying the structure of biological theories. Perhaps his major accomplishment was the 500‐page treatise Biological Principles: A Critical Study (1929), which systematically investigated the epistemological basis of biological knowledge through an analysis of its central concepts. Today, he is mostly remembered for his audacious monograph The Axiomatic Method in Biology (1937), which remains the most ambitious attempt to reformulate the propositions of biology (especially genetics, embryology, and taxonomy) using the tools of symbolic logic and pure mathematics. Woodger is also known for establishing the Theoretical Biology Club, and for introducing the ‘Bauplan’ concept into Anglophone biology. The insect Terpandrus Woodgeri (Woodger's Gumleaf Katydid) is named in his honour.

Keywords: theoretical biology; philosophy of the life sciences; Bauplan; organisation; axiomatisation; Ludwig von Bertalanffy; Joseph Needham; Conrad Hal Waddington; Willi Hennig; Karl Popper

Figure 1. Joseph Henry Woodger with his son Christopher, September 1949 (from the authors' private collection).
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References

Anon (1960) Biology at Middlesex Hospital Medical School: Prof. J. H. Woodger. Nature 185 (4706): 75.

Gregg JR and Harris FTC (1964) Form and Strategy in Science: Studies Dedicated to Joseph Henry Woodger on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Popper KR (1981) Obituary: Joseph Henry Woodger. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 32 (3): 328–330.

Woodger JH (1924) Elementary Morphology and Physiology for Medical Students: A Guide for the First Year and Stepping‐stone to the Second. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woodger JH (1929) Biological Principles: A Critical Study. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Woodger JH (1930a) The ‘Concept of Organism’ and the relation between embryology and genetics, Part I. The Quarterly Review of Biology 5 (1): 1–22.

Woodger JH (1930b) The ‘Concept of Organism’ and the relation between embryology and genetics, Part II. The Quarterly Review of Biology 5 (4): 438–465.

Woodger JH (1937) The Axiomatic Method in Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodger JH (1931) The ‘Concept of Organism’ and the relation between embryology and genetics, Part III. The Quarterly Review of Biology 6 (2): 178–207.

Woodger JH (1939) The Technique of Theory Construction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Woodger JH (1945) On biological transformations. In: Le Gros Clark WE and Medawar PB, (eds). Essays on Growth and Form, Presented to D' Arcy Wentworth Thompson, pp. 95–120. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woodger JH (1952) Biology and Language: An Introduction to the Methodology of the Biological Sciences Including Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodger JH (1956) Physics, Psychology and Medicine: A Methodological Essay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further Reading

Nicholson DJ and Gawne R (2014) Rethinking Woodger's legacy in the philosophy of biology. Journal of the History of Biology 47 (2): 243–292.

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How to Cite close
Nicholson, Daniel J, and Gawne, Richard(Jun 2015) Joseph Henry Woodger. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026117]