State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 74 Spring 2004


Jeff Prentice
Library Profile
Frederic Wood Jones

On the recommendation of the Chief Secretary in Victoria, an outstanding British anatomist, naturalist, anthropologist, public speaker and humanitarian, Frederic Wood Jones, was appointed to the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria as a Trustee in February 1931. He attended meetings regularly, and took an active role in the supervision of the institution; by April 1936 he was on the Industrial Technological Museum Special Committee, the Lecture Committee and the National Museum Special Committee. Such a workload in addition to his academic duties might have daunted many but not this energetic Englishman.
Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954) was in Australia for less than twenty years, arriving in Adelaide in 1920 and leaving Melbourne to return to his homeland in 1937. He always spoke his mind; and when in 1936 the State Government ignored the Trustee's recommendation of a new Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, he resigned his Trustee position in protest. He

Jack Cato (1889-1971), photographer. Frederic Wood Jones. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Barry Christophers.

left Australia in 1937, to take up the chair of anatomy in Manchester, having left his mark in Melbourne as a professor of anatomy, an expert in natural history, and a leader in civic affairs.
Born on 23 January 1879 at Shaklewell, West Hackney, London, Frederic Wood Jones was the youngest of three children to Charles and Lucy Jones. (About the age of 20 years he apparently incorporated Wood, his middle name, as part of his surname, derived from his maternal grandmother Martha Wood Allen. In the State Library catalogue 20 titles by him appear under ‘Jones, Frederic Wood’, and a further 19 under ‘Jones, F. Wood’.)
As a student at Enfield Grammar School, Wood Jones showed a keen interest in all branches of natural history. After matriculating, he entered the University of London in order to study medicine and science, graduating B.Sc in 1903 and M.B., B.S. in 1904. His first post was as medical officer in the Cocos-Keeling Islands, where he was able to continue studies in natural history. This led to the award of a D.Sc. in 1910 (the same year that he married Gertrude Clunies-Ross, whose family had acquired the Cocos Islands early in the nineteenth century).
Early in his career Wood Jones decided to work in anatomy, for which he became a recognised authority, worldwide. Although his name has virtually disappeared from public gaze today, his reputation as a teacher of anatomy in the universities of Adelaide and Melbourne remains, such was his charisma among medical students. He held the Thomas Elder chair of anatomy at the University of Adelaide from 1920 to 1926, and after a stint at the University of Hawaii, returned to Australia to hold the chair of anatomy in the University of Melbourne from 1930 to 1937. Both appointments were to Australia's benefit, not only because of the way he handled his academic duties but also because he threw himself into public life, having strong interests in writing, broadcasting and public speaking.
That Wood Jones became a legend in his own lifetime is indisputable. The Melbourne society photographer of the 1930s, Jack Cato, came to know him well, saying of his friend:
Professor Jones was… often referred to as the best brain in Australia. He was also one of the most charming men I've ever known, his students worshipped him… He was witty and loved fun… A rebel by nature, he was too intelligent to cry over the world's woes. Yet he was prepared to attack stupidities at all levels. In Australia, he broke so much new ground and destroyed so many ancient myths that he was always controversial… Wood Jones was a titan amongst minnows…. (Age Literary Supplement, 27 August 1960)
In today's parlance, Wood Jones was a great science communicator. Take, for instance, his series of talks on Melbourne radio station 3AR in 1932, when he spoke about the human mind, the evolution of the human brain and the human nervous system, the talks published for the general public in The Listener In magazine. Wood Jones always had something vital to say about humankind, and spoke with authority and sincerity. Equally at home in journalism as in broadcasting, he stepped outside academia to write Unscientific Essays (1924) and Unscientific Excursions (1934). These discursive essays, with intriguing titles like ‘Of Moon-Gazing’, ‘Of Oily Patches’ and ‘In Praise of the Unnecessary’, some of which had been published previously in the Melbourne Argus, were ‘the unacademic thoughts of one whose life is spent in academic
routine’ (as he said in the Preface to Unscientific Excursions). He even found time to write a children's book, Seabirds Simplified (1934) – humorous verses with illustrations by the author.
On several occasions, Wood Jones made disparaging remarks about the youth of the 1930s, and their lack of interest in nature's wonders. His powers of observation were acute when it came to watching and listening to human beings in their daily lives. Travelling on Melbourne's green trams from his home in Lempriere Avenue, East St Kilda, to the University of Melbourne, listening attentively to young boys talking about the movies and the wireless, aeroplanes, airships and submarines, he noted that they did so without a questioning mind.
A critic of contemporary values, Wood Jones posed the question in 1934: ‘Man has to a great extent created his own environment. He has created an environment which he considers is suitable for homo sapiens as a species. But is it a success?’ (Unscientific Excursions, London, Edward Arnold & Co., London, 1934, p. 74). Again in 1933, while at the University of Melbourne, he sent out the challenge: ‘A day will dawn when the young Australian will so cherish the marvels of his homeland that he who disfigures the landscape with discarded tins or who ringbarks a beautiful gumtree will be regarded with scorn.’ (Foreword to Charles Fenner, Bunyips and Billabongs, Sydney Angus & Robertson, 1993, p. x.)

Dennis Wisken, photographer. Dr Christophers with drawings by Wood Jones. Photograph courtesy of Jeff Prentice.

Intellectually, the 1930s were in many respects a repressive period in Australian history, and when it came to the plight of the Aborigines, a national disgrace. Wood Jones in an emphatic statement at the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in 1926 said: ‘The white colonists of Australia have contracted a huge debt; they are 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.’ (‘The Claim of the Australian Aborigines’, Report of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Government Printer, Perth, 1928, p. 497.) Stern words, indeed, from an Englishman who never viewed Australians as colonials in an imperialistic sense, but who realised the injustice done to the Aborigines.
A fellow medico in Melbourne, Dr Barry Christophers, has single handedly built up a valuable archive on Frederic Wood Jones for over 40 years, producing two scholarly bibliographies of his works. Having similar interests, including a strong humanitarian outlook on society, Dr Christophers has been Wood Jones's champion. Although they never met, numerous articles by Dr Christophers in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery testify to the abiding interest of Wood Jones in public affairs. Writing in The Medical Journal of Australia, 5 August 1972, Dr Christophers expressed the opinion that ‘Wood Jones was perhaps the greatest man of science to grace our shores, and I am very conscious of the fact that Charles Darwin visited Australia’ (p. 325).
In 1965, the then Director of the South Australian Museum, Peter Crowcroft, provided an introduction to a reissue of The Mammals of South Australia, originally issued between 1923 and 1925. A pioneering work, it had been written and illustrated by Wood Jones within five years of his taking up his appointment at the University of Adelaide. As a naturalist with academic qualifications Wood Jones had been a magnet to many who were passionate about Australia's natural history, among them the popularizer Charles Barrett, who sought him out. For such enthusiasts he was a mentor, mate, and a personality to be reckoned with. Wood Jones's intellect demanded the best from all he met and worked with in Australia. Remarking that there was ‘no specialist both able and willing to revise the text’, Dr Crowcroft went on to offer the view that ‘Professor Frederic Wood Jones could not appreciate the rare nature of his own industry, versatility, and audacity.’
The Australian public has yet to appreciate the rare nature of this Englishman who contributed so much to our intellectual life.