Joseph Henry Woodger (1894-1981) Papers at University College London (UCL)

Header for Mendel Newsletter number 14

Some years ago I searched for archival materials, or papers, related to Joseph Henry Woodger, philosopher, biologist and advocate of logical positivism (Cain 2000) (obituary). The hope was to assess the extent of informal contact with those pursuing synthesis in evolutionary studies, 1920s-1940s. I found little connection to these evolutionists when searching their personal papers, then went in search of an archives for Woodger. I did not find such a collection. Worse, I was told by reliable informants that Woodger’s papers and correspondence had been destroyed. I now can report those informants were wrong. A significant deposit of Woodger’s papers and correspondence was made to the Special Collections Library of University College London in 1990 by Woodger’s family.

This essay appeared as Joe Cain. 2005. Joseph Henry Woodger (1894-1981) Papers at University College London. Mendel Newsletter. 14: 7-8. PDF below. Tables 1 and 2 are added.

This essay describes the Woodger Papers in more detail. I spent three days building a sense of its substance as I searched for evidence of connection to evolutionary theorists in the 1920s and 1930s. Twenty-five boxes (approximately 12.5 linear feet) were deposited. A box level inventory was created in 1999 by the Library (Table 1). The collection contains material between 1922-1980, covering Woodger’s professional career. In general terms, this archive contains research notes, published and unpublished manuscripts, and correspondence. Most correspondence is incoming, focusing largely on research and administrative matters. For those close to Woodger, information on personal and period issues also can be found.

Three phases to his career

These Papers give the impression of three broad phases in Woodger’s scholarly career. The first phase was defined by his employment at the medical school of The Middlesex Hospital in central London (Thomson 1935; Ranger 1985). Woodger (1924) established, in English medical circles, his reputation as a skilled and thoughtful instructor. He was known as a skilled histologist and preparator. This textbook also presented him as someone with important ideas for larger educational goals in the medical curriculum. Supporting him were those wishing medical students memorised less and critically reflected more.

The second phase has Woodger (1929) as a landmark. This book offered an analysis of dichotomies supposedly structuring fundamental problems in biological research. This grew from Woodger’s interest in experimental embryology and from interactions with similarly inclined developmental biologists in the Cambridge-Oxford-London triangle, especially Joseph Needham and Gavin de Beer (Abir-Am 1991, 1987). His principal professional organisation along these lines seems to have been the Society for Experimental Biology. Woodger (1929) gained wide attention and was extensively reviewed (reviews are collected in Box H; this book has been reprinted twice: 1967, 2000). Commentators focused particularly on Woodger’s analysis of the mechanism versus vitalism polarity. In addition to complaining about imprecision in language, Woodger rejected vitalism but demanded more from mechanism. Woodger called for a return to fundamental principles. His notoriety at this point was largely English, though a few other biologists of the same proclivities (e.g., Raymond Pearl) befriended Woodger as a result of this work.

The third phase began in the early 1930s, as Woodger sought tools for increasing the precision of language and reasoning. As frequent autobiographical fragments in these Papers describe, he became fascinated with Whitehead and Russell (1910-1913) in the early 1930s (e.g., Table 2). Pursuing the logical and symbolic expression of biological theories became Woodger’s main research activity thereafter. This led him into the international activities of the Vienna Circle, logical positivism, and the Unity of Science movement. Woodger (1939; 1937) are his first major statements along these lines. In biological subjects, Woodger followed his interests in development and growth in the 1930s. He became increasingly focused on psychology and logic thereafter. Woodger was especially proud of his invitation to present the Tarner Lectures, 1949-1950 (Woodger 1952). More general writing continued after Woodger’s retirement in 1959. He chose to abandon most research in 1978. Woodger died in 1981.

By far, the third phase is best represented in this collection. The other phases are present only in brief glimpses, such as with occasional teaching notes or lecture scripts. Material on personal or family issues are rare. Of greatest surprise is a partial script for a 13 October 1968 talk to Horton Hospital Epsom (in Box C2/2). In this speech, Woodger noted several periods of depression before 1950. Preparation of the Tarner Lectures offered the opportunity to consider “a wider look at life.” He was subsequently inspired, he said, by a spiritual revelation in 1954. One night at his home, Woodger had a personal vision of “Christ washing his disciples’ feet”. This focused Woodger’s ethos, he said, on humility and kindness. Afterwards he read the Gospels intensely, took Holy Communion, and sought inspiration through the books of CS Lewis, among other authors.

Contents of the Woodger Papers

Currently the Woodger Papers are difficult to use. Welcome as it was, the original deposit arrived in a disorganised state. The current organisation, at the category-level, has stabilised the collection but offers only a rough sorting. Users should be aware that linked material (e.g., correspondence with particular individuals or notes on a particular subject) are scattered across the current categories, and many important items are buried in seemingly unimportant files. Woodger’s practice of reusing scrap paper, student assignments, and folders adds to the confusion. Folder-level processing, when completed, will bring welcome order and access.

These Papers include several secondary items that seem to have been lost to interested scholars. Marshall Allen’s (1975) masters thesis provides an informative biographical introduction to Woodger (located in Category J). Allen corresponded with Woodger in the process. Dunham (1957, in Box D1) and Martin (1954) briefly introduce Woodger’s axiomatic method. Both collaborated with Woodger.

I’d like to thank the staff of UCL Library Special Collections for their generous assistance in this survey. This essay is not associated with their processing of these Papers.

Category A: notebooks of Woodger’s own material

4 linear feet. Woodger made extensive notes during the development of his ideas. He tested his axiomatic systems and reasoning; he translated texts into theoretical statements; he struggled to rigorously organise his thinking. He preserved a substantial volume of these notes. Some were kept, perhaps copied into, bound notebooks. This Category preserves more than 200 such notebooks. Few are completely filled.

Roughly half these notebooks are organised by subject, tied to a central index and produced roughly between 1936-1953. The index is divided into several groups, including:

  • 19 “mathematical” notebooks (e.g., differential calculus, theory of graphs, group theory, complex numbers)
  • 15 on “biological axiomatics” (e.g., hierarchies, Mendelism, class and collection)
  • 15 on “biological various” (e.g., embryology, parental relation, development, organisers and genes)
  • 7 on genetics
  • 18 on logic
  • 6 on “visits and meetings,” including Warsaw 1938-1939; Warsaw Easter 1937; Oxford July 1946; Oxford Spring 1949; Bristol 1951, [Society for Experimental Biology]; Cambridge [no date, Society for Experimental Biology]
  • 24 “other topics” notebooks, including “religion, Whitehead, Hume A Bryant”, “science and metaphysics”, “conscience in revolt (against Hitler)”, and notes developed during the writing of Woodger’s books

The other half of the notebooks in this Category include additional notebooks for similar purpose. Ninety are organised in what appears to be a chronological sequence, 1960-1978, from Woodger’s retirement in 1959 to the year he chose to abandon most research. A few miscellaneous notebooks complete this collection.

These notebooks are supplemented with considerable loose research notes located in most other Categories.

Category B: Notebooks on others’ works

<0.5 linear feet. Woodger took extensive notes when reading, sometimes exactly copying texts in full. These notes are scattered throughout the whole collection. In this Category are collected bound notebooks, as for Category A, for some of this note-taking. For example, one notebook copies Whitehead (1901) “Memoir on the Algebra of Symbolic Logic”. In addition, Woodger collected in these notebooks material developed during collaborations. Those with John Gregg, for instance, produced several notebooks. Some notebooks lack dates, though many seem to date from the decade starting in the late 1950s.

Category C: Correspondence

2 linear feet. Correspondence is scattered throughout each Category, excepting A and B. In this Category, two divisions are preserved. The first half (2 boxes) appears to be Woodger’s own filing system, with folders devoted to specific people, surnames by letter, and specific events. Most correspondence is incoming, with occasional drafts or copies of outgoing letters. It’s not clear if the overall volume of this material was reduced by selective removal (on Woodger’s part, his family, or someone else prior to deposit). However, this is likely given the low volume of material preserved.

The second half of material in this Category (2 boxes) continues the theme of correspondence, largely incoming. However, the division is roughly chronological, 1922-1980. This second half most likely is not a natural arrangement. Dates of folders overlap and materials seem quite scattered.

The best coverage relates to those closely involved in Woodger’s collaborations, the Unity of Science community, and business related to activities in The Middlesex Hospital. Of particular note are Woodger’s relations with various German and Polish philosophers of science, mathematics, and logic, especially for the latter during the refugee crisis at the outbreak of WW2. Post WW2 correspondence increasing relates to axiomatic methods and interpretations, in contrast with pre-WW2 correspondence that tends to emphasise developmental biology and the British community focusing on growth. Mixed with this correspondence are some typescripts of Woodger’s own papers and those from others.

Notable or substantial correspondents include:

  • Allen, Marshall
  • Bernal, JD
  • Beer, Gavin de
  • Carnap, Rudolf
  • Dunlop, WR
  • Espinase, Paul
  • Gregg, John
  • Hempel, Peter
  • Hull, Clark
  • Lejewski, Czeslaw
  • Lindenmayer, Aristid
  • Martin, RM
  • Mather, K
  • Medawar, Peter
  • Nash, David
  • Needham, Joseph
  • Neurath, Otto
  • Oppenheimer, Paul
  • Pearl, Raymond
  • Popper, Karl
  • Quine, Willard
  • Sawyer, William
  • Tarski, Alfred
  • Tartar, Vance
  • Thorpe, WH
  • Watson, DMS
  • Weaver, Warren

Category D: Research files

2.5 linear feet. The contents in this Category, approximately 60 folders of varying thickness, are difficult to characterise owing to their highly disorganised state. Some folders collect material specific to the topic written on its label. However, many folders are blank or are obviously recycled. Moreover, many folders include material seemingly unrelated to the main theme.

In general these folders combine Woodger’s own reading notes from published materials, notes from his own thinking, attempted axiomatizations, related correspondence, and draft texts. Some typescripts and manuscripts are included, too.

The list of folder labels, in their current order throughout the Category, follows. Square brackets [ ] are Cain’s notes or designations based on the majority of a folder’s contents.

Box D1: Theoretical Biology Discussion Group [crossed out]; [reform of teaching of elementary biology to medical students]; adaptive behaviour; mathematics; methodological notes; notes for revision of Tarner Lectures; probability; Harvey; lexicographical order.

Box D2: [Lopsidedness]; science and politics 1950; Whitehead glossary; what are the statements of natural science about? ; Mengenlehre; parental relation ; topology; The Language WL; Embryology; Theoretical; PT Cell; PT En. (theory of time stretches); rote learning.

Box D3: Theory of relations; Sommerhof; genetics; evolution; genetics notes current; September 1959 file; biology theoretical; [antithesis between heredity and environment]; [causation] and [Harvey].

Box D4: logic; [notes on embryology and genetics]; [Ludwig von Bartalanffy]; Methodology. Deductive Sciences; dl2 [logical system]; embryology. experimental; graphs; [theory of]; games; Extracts; evolution; folder: selection hypothesis; naming; [history of philosophy]; the joining of sets.

Box D5: Combined algebra; Genetics; Embryology Harvey [bundle of files tied together]; embryology; morphology of the skull; genetical systems.

Category E: Manuscripts and Typescripts

3 linear feet. This Category includes materials relating to Woodger’s own papers, including (1) manuscript and typescript drafts of published works, (2) some unpublished or abandoned manuscripts, (3) notes developing new ideas, (4) notes from reading other work, (5) miscellaneous jottings, such as spoonerisms, and (6) lecture and speech notes.

Box E1 includes many undated typescripts. Of note are speech scripts from Woodger’s travels in America (Chicago and Boston, 1938), speeches given in the early 1940s on general topics, and numerous papers presented in the late 1940s. It also contains a 12-page speech given at the Sorbonne for the 1935 Unity of Science Congress, entitled “An Axiom-system for Biology.” Also included are several lectures written for 1953 Middlesex courses on biological methodology.

Box E2 includes material related to a 1957-1958 symposium on axiomatic method, as well as a journal of Woodger’s visit to Berkeley. It also includes early 1950s correspondence with Mainx on Woodger’s translation work for the Encyclopedia of Science as well as a manuscript by Woodger, “An essay on mathematical logic as a tool of analysis: Its uses and achievements in the sciences and philosophy | by Christopher Columbus.”

Box E3 includes a 1945 typescript by Woodger, “A Biological Approach to Socialism” given as a paper read at Middlesex Hospital Medical School Socialist Society. His 1955 “Memorandum on Medical Education” is included, as are typescripts and working drafts for “The Logic of Biology, part II”.

Box E4 includes several apparently unpublished manuscripts from the 1930s collectively related to science and religion. Essay titles include “conflicts,” and the “dilemma of actual life.” This also includes notes from a trio of early 1930s lectures titled “Prolegomena to a discussion on the relation between science and religion”. Other files include extensive reading notes on “biological methodology”; “epistemology,” the conversion of embryological concepts into axiomatic logic, and the same for genetic systems.

Box E5 contains typescripts for more apparently unpublished, undated essays, including a “Prolegomena to rational embryology,” an essay on “Theoretical Biology and Exact Science,” and two typescripts for “physics, psychology, and medicine: a methodological essay”. Woodger attempted to create an anthology of his biological essays, with minor revisions and comments. The incomplete compilation is included in this box.

Box E6 includes some apparently unpublished writings. The typescript for a small book titled, “Philosophy for Doctors: Theoretical Suggestions towards a solution of some practical problems” is included.

These boxes also include items more properly assigned to other Categories, especially correspondence. For instance, Box E2 contains Woodger’s 12 March 1945 letter of recommendation for Karl Popper in application to LSE. In this strong recommendation, Woodger explained,

“Dr Popper is trained in modern scientific logic and not only in the Aristotelian doctrine which is taught in philosophy departments in the universities in this country and which is of little value from the scientific standpoint. Dr Popper’s published works testify to this. They also, I think, testify to the fact that Dr Popper has a well-balanced and critical mind which is not easily diverted (lead astray) by metaphysical enthusiasms.”

Category F: Manuscripts and Typescripts of Other People’s Work
Category J: Offprints of Others

<0.5 linear feet. Offprints sent from other authors are included, as are typescripts made when offprints were not available. Numerous prints from Tarski are here, as well as several from Quine and Carnap, plus a typescript of Hempel’s (1958) The Theoretician’s Dilemma. A reprint from Wright (1932) is present, though it is not signed or dated. One marginal comment is present, likely in Woodger’s hand. It corrects a calculation on p. 357 in first two lines below the figure caption. Other reprints are scattered throughout boxes in other Categories.

Included here also are several other items, especially Allen (1975). A few pages from Woodger’s 1926 Middlesex course on histology, including a list of subjects to cover in the term and a typed version on an introductory lecture, presumably related to Woodger (1924). Also here are application materials from Ian Suttie for a post as medical superintendent at the County Mental Hospital. Burntwood.

Category G: Photographs

<0.5 linear feet. Fewer than a dozen photographs are included. Two show Woodger: (1) in Vienna, “April 1926. Garden of Biologische Versuchsanstalt [der Akademie der Wissenschaften],” and (2) at a symposium on the axiomatic method, Berkeley CA, 1957-1958. Another shows a refreshment break at the 1934 meeting of the Society of Experimental Biology in Edinburgh, featuring D’Arcy Thompson, Wiesner, and Crew.

Category H: Offprints and Reviews of Woodger’s Work

0.5 linear feet. Woodger preserved many reviews for his own books. Most were provided from publishers via clipping services, though some were sent directly to Woodger from colleagues or typed for him as a copy for his own records. Reviews cover all his books and include clippings from mathematics and philosophy journals as well as some biologist and general science journals. Woodger (1924), his first book, was well received. Woodger (1929) received considerable attention in the general English press, largely owing to its discussion of the need to replace the mechanist-vitalist polarity with something less extreme.

Approximately two dozen of Woodger’s own papers are included as offprints. Two items are unusual. Woodger (1950) offers some autobiographical details (quoted in Table 2). During World War 2, Woodger (1944) wrote several items concerning dialectical materialism. Also present are numerous lengthy essays in Science Progress, in the form of book reviews. These normally are omitted in Woodger’s published bibliographies despite the fact many contain substantial commentary.

Table 1: Summary of Woodger Papers and basic organisation, as currently organised by UCL Special Collections

Category # boxes description from UCL Library finding aid
A 7 Notebooks of own material
A1: numbered 1-103, indexed, some gaps, c 1936-1953
A2: unnumbered, 1960-1978
A3: various, unnumbered 1934-1979, mostly journals
B 1 Notebooks on others’ works
unnumbered, 1951-1961
C 4 Correspondence:
C1: Alphabetical
C1/1: A-H
C1/2: J-Z
C2: Chronological, 1922-1955, 1933-1980, 1955-1978, 1956-1973
D 5 Research files
includes some letters
E 6 manuscripts and typescripts
drafts for lectures, books, articles, published and unpublished
F <1 manuscripts and typescripts of other people’s work
G <1 photographs
J <1 offprints of others
H 1 offprints and reviews of Woodger’s work

Table 2: Full text of Woodger (1950), autobiographical comments

“I am concerned with biological methodology. By this I understand the study of the role of language in the development of the biological sciences: the syntax, semantics and pragmatics of biological theories.”

“As early as 1925 I became impressed with the quarrelsomeness of biologists, especially with their tendency to set up antitheses (e.g., vitalism versus mechanism, structure v. function, heredity v. environment, preformation v. epigenesist, teleology v. causation, mind v. body, etc.) and to regard them as mutually exclusive. When I investigated this situation I discovered to what a large extent it depended upon a too naïve attitude towards language and upon the naïve metaphysics of the scientist. The results of this study were published in my Biological Principles in 1929. At this time I began the study of the Principia Mathematica of Whitehead and Russell and decided to seek a way out of the linguistic shortcomings of biology with the help of mathematical logic. In 1935 I had the good fortune to become the friend of Alfred Tarski from whom I learnt about methodology as understood by the Polish School. The results of my studies during this period resulted in my Axiomatic Method in Biology (1937) and my Technique of Theory Construction (1939). In 1949 I was appointed Tarner Lecturer at Trinity College Cambridge. In these lectures (which will be published in 1951) I concentrated on methodological problems in genetics and neurology and also touched upon some sociological problems which arise when scientific theories are applied to human beings.”

“I conceive the task of biological methodology to be to construct a language for biology on scientific principles based on the work of Boole, Frege and their successors and to make known to biologists the nature of scientific inquiry. On the last point I very largely share the outlook of Hume, Poincaré, Peirce and Bridgman.”


Abir-Am, Pnina. 1987. The biotheoretical gathering, trans-disciplinary authority and the incipient legitimation of molecular biology in the 1930s: new perspective on the historical sociology of science. History of Science 25:1-70.

———. 1991. The philosophical background of Joseph Needham’s work in chemical embryology. In A Conceptual History of Modern Embryology, edited by S. Gilbert. New York: Plenum Press.

Allen, Marshall William. 1975. J. H. Woodger and the Emergence of Supra-Empirical Orders of Discussion in Early Twentieth Century Biology. Master of Science, History, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR.

Cain, Joe. 2000. Woodger, Positivism, and the Evolutionary Synthesis. Biology and Philosophy 15: 535-551.

Dunham, Bradford. 1957. The Formalization of Scientific Languages. Part I. The Work of Woodger and Hull. IBM Journal 1 (4):341-348.

Martin, Richard M. 1954. On Woodger’s Analysis of biological language. Review of Metaphysics 8 (2):326-333.

Ranger, Douglas. 1985. The Middlesex Hospital Medical School: Centenary to Sesquicentenary, 1935-1985. London: Hutchinson Benham.

Thomson, H. Campbell. 1935. The Story of The Middlesex Hospital Medical School: Written at the Request of the Council of the Medical School on the Occasion of the Centenary. London: John Murray.

Whitehead, Alfred North, and Bertrand Arthur William Russell. 1910-1913. Principia Mathematica, 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodger, Joseph Henry. 1924. Elementary Morphology and Physiology for Medical Students: A Guide for the First Year and A Stepping Stone to the Second. London: Humphrey-Milford.

———. 1929. Biological Principles: A Critical Study, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method. London: Kegan Paul and Co.

———. 1932. The ‘Concept of Organism’ and the Relation between Embryology and Genetics [part II]. QRB 6:178-207.

———. 1937. The Axiomatic Method in Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1939. The Technique of Theory Construction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1944. Dialectical Materialism and Biology. Middlesex Hospital Journal 44 (2):32-35.

———. 1950. An Answer by a Biologist. Estratto da Methodos: rivista trimestrale di Metodologia e di Logica Simbolica 2 (5):31.

———. 1952. Biology and Language: An Introduction to the Methodology of the Biological Sciences Including Medicine, The Tarner Lectures for 1949-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Article appearing in Mendel Newsletter number 14

Tables are added to this text.

Cain, Joe. 2005. Joseph Henry Woodger (1894-1981) Papers at University College London. Mendel Newsletter. 14: 7-8.