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Frederic Wood Jones (1879–1954)

by Monica MacCallum

This article was published:

Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954), by unknown photographer, c1937

Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954), by unknown photographer, c1937

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2141

Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954), anatomist, naturalist and anthropologist, was born on 23 January 1879 at Hackney, London, only son and youngest of three children of Charles Henry Jones, builder, slate merchant and architect, and his wife Lucy, née Allin. The family moved to Enfield where he attended local schools and showed enthusiasm for natural history. In 1897 he entered the London Hospital Medical College which in 1900 became part of the University of London where he graduated (B.Sc., 1903; M.B., B.S., 1904; D.Sc., 1910). In 1904 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons; he was made a fellow in 1930.

At the university he began a lifelong friendship with the anatomist (Sir) Arthur Keith whose encouragement influenced him to make his career in anatomy, but, as a young graduate, Wood Jones found medicine 'cramped and small when compared to biology' and jumped at the chance of a post as medical officer to the Eastern Extension Telegraph Co. on the Cocos-Keeling Islands (1905-06). There his duties left him time for studies in natural history which earned him a doctorate, published as Coral and Atolls (London, 1910). There, too, he met his future wife Gertrude, daughter of George Clunies-Ross, governor of Cocos-Keeling. Married in London on 11 June 1910, they had no issue but his wife brought to the union five children by an earlier marriage. Wood Jones dedicated almost all his books to her.

The foundation of his work in anthropology was laid when, granted leave as demonstrator at the 'London', he obeyed a summons from (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith, professor of anatomy, Cairo, to join the archaeological survey of Nubia, made urgent because the raising in height of the Aswan Dam would soon flood important sites. Elliot Smith had academic duties in Cairo and, after a few weeks training, Wood Jones was left as his deputy to examine, in the trying conditions of desert camps, the human relics from thousands of burials of widely ranging antiquity. The quality of his work won Elliot Smith's admiration, and their results were published in the second volume of The Archaeological Survey of Nubia: Report for 1907-1908 (Cairo, 1910).

Wood Jones gained experience as an academic anatomist through teaching posts at the medical schools of the London, St Thomas's and the Royal Free hospitals, and at the University of Manchester. At the Royal Free (London School of Medicine for Women) he was appointed lecturer and head of department (1912) and professor of anatomy (1915). He gave the Arris and Gale lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons (1914, 1915, 1916, 1919), some of which formed the nucleus of Arboreal Man (London, 1916) which addressed one of his central interests, the evolution of man. Early in 1918 he joined the army as captain, Royal Army Medical Corps. As he was posted to the Special Military Surgical Hospital, Shepherd's Bush, London, he was still able to fit in some lectures for the school. His anatomical masterpiece, The Principles of Anatomy as Seen in the Hand (London, 1920), had its origin in lectures given at Shepherd's Bush.

On the recommendation of Keith, Wood Jones was offered the (Thomas) Elder chair of anatomy at the University of Adelaide in 1919 and took up his duties in January 1920. These, he discovered to his dismay, had to be carried out in cramped quarters without adequate technical assistance or anatomical specimens. With his usual energy, and skill in presenting a case, he persuaded the university to build him a lecture theatre and provide a skilled technician with whom he could begin to assemble a museum. That Wood Jones was a brilliant teacher had been demonstrated in London. In Adelaide as, later, in Melbourne, his lectures were widely acclaimed for their infectious enthusiasm, absorbing interest, wit, clarity of exposition and superb blackboard draughtsmanship. Academic considerations apart, the Australian appointment had attracted him because of the opportunities it promised for study of the native fauna; and almost all his vacations, and spare money, were spent on field excursions to the inland and islands. He became an active member of the Royal Society of South Australia and the first of his many articles to appear in its Transactions was published in 1920. Later he was commissioned to write a handbook, The Mammals of South Australia, which was illustrated with his own drawings and published in three parts (Adelaide, 1923-25). He also published Unscientific Essays (London, 1924), typical of his many writings in lighter vein. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1925. Wood Jones also became very interested in the Aboriginals both as an anthropologist and as a humanitarian. He was a prime mover in 1926 in founding the Anthropological Society of South Australia. He liked and admired the Aboriginals and was appalled by the conditions under which the detribalized so often had to exist and by public indifference to their plight. He did what he could with his pen to arouse public awareness of the problem in Adelaide and later supported their cause even more vigorously in Melbourne.

In 1920 Wood Jones, as Adelaide's delegate to the Pan-Pacific Scientific Congress in Honolulu, had entered a wider anthropological community, and in 1927 he accepted an invitation to the Rockefeller chair of physical anthropology at the University of Hawaii. There he wrote The Matrix of the Mind (Honolulu, 1928) with the psychologist S. D. Porteus and Man's Place Among the Mammals (London, 1929), a sequel to Arboreal Man, in which he set out his unorthodox views on the evolution of man whom he considered to be more nearly related to Tarsius than to the great apes. At first he rejoiced in the freedom from teaching; but he came to miss it, and was easily persuaded to accept the chair of anatomy at the University of Melbourne in 1930. A drop in salary was at first a stumbling-block, but several Melbourne citizens, mostly medical practitioners, guaranteed an additional £200 a year.

In Melbourne, under the restrictions of the Depression, Wood Jones laboured to build up a department which would embody his ideals. The resulting institution won a high reputation not only for the excellence of its undergraduate teaching but for its encouragement of research. At first there was little time for outside interests, but in 1935 he helped to found the McCoy Society for Field Investigation and Research, became its first president and took part in its ecological surveys of various offshore islands. He renewed an interest in birds and, in addition to more learned writings, published his delightful book of verse for children, Sea Birds Simplified (London, 1934). He was in great demand as a public speaker and became known to a wider public through contributions to press and radio. In 1932-33 he acted as temporary director of anatomy, Peiping Union Medical College, China. An honorary fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons was conferred on him in 1935. He had already received the honorary degree of D.Sc. from the universities of Adelaide (1920) and Melbourne (1934).

Wood Jones had planned to retire and return to England at the end of 1938 but instead he accepted the chair of anatomy in Manchester where his success with students again became legendary. In 1945, to his delight, he was appointed Sir William H. Collins professor of human and comparative anatomy and conservator of the anatomical museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It became a labour of love to restore the Hunterian collection, extensively damaged by an enemy bomb in 1941. In 1951, owing to a change in regulations, Wood Jones, then 72, had to retire. However, the college made him honorary curator of the Hunterian collection and he continued to work there until a few months before his death. He died in London of cancer on 29 September 1954, survived by his wife.

If he made no one dramatic discovery or theoretical advance, Wood Jones's contributions to the sciences were numerous, and impressive in the aggregate; but his genius undoubtedly lay in his powers as a teacher, something of which can still be felt in the vivid prose of his books. He brought to any subject a refreshing originality of approach, seeing new and surprising connexions within it and beyond. He never considered an anatomical structure in isolation from its function in the living animal, or from its embryological or evolutionary development. His standpoint was essentially comparative and evolutionary; but, never afraid of unconventionality, he became a Lamarckian evolutionist. Most people found him a man of great charm and humanity; sometimes unnecessarily scathing in debate with his peers, he was consistently patient and friendly with students who, everywhere, regarded him with affectionate admiration. He rejected orthodox religion and a personal, anthropomorphic deity, but believed that there was mind or spirit of some kind behind Nature. He discussed his metaphysical position in works of his later years such as Design and Purpose (London, 1942). There is a portrait at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Melbourne, by W. B. McInnes and another by A. Egerton Cooper at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Select Bibliography

  • B. E. Christophers (compiler), A List of the Published Works of Frederic Wood Jones, 1879-1954 (Melb, 1974)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2 (1954)
  • Royal College of Surgeons of England, Annals, 15 (1954), 25 (1959), 34 (1964)
  • Adelaide Medical Students' Review, May 1955
  • Journal of Anatomy (Lond), 89 (1955)
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1 (1955)
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, 56 (1956)
  • Manchester University Medical School, Gazette, 37 (1958)
  • Times (London), 30 Sept 1954
  • Arthur Keith papers (Royal College of Surgeons of England)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Monica MacCallum, 'Jones, Frederic Wood (1879–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954), by unknown photographer, c1937

Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954), by unknown photographer, c1937

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2141

Life Summary [details]


23 January, 1879
London, Middlesex, England


29 September, 1954 (aged 75)
London, Middlesex, England

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