Professor David Woodward

Historian of world cartography
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The Independent Online

David Woodward transformed the history of cartography from a directionless Eurocentric field into a respectable subject now global in scope.

David Alfred Woodward, historian of cartography: born Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 29 August 1942; Program Director, Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography 1971-80, Professor of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1980-95, Arthur H. Robinson Professor of Geography 1995-2002 (Emeritus); married 1966 Rosalind Bailey (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Madison, Wisconsin 25 August 2004.

David Woodward transformed the history of cartography from a directionless Eurocentric field into a respectable subject now global in scope.

As late as 1970 it lacked focus. The subject's stature was such that Lawrence W. Turner, President and Librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, supposedly considered recommending the disposal of its internationally important collection of maps. His decision not to do so began the transformation of the subject he held in such low regard.

In 1971 the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography was established as one of the Newberry's research and education centres. It was to offer courses, conduct and sponsor research, publish, arrange lectures by distinguished scholars and be uniquely international in scope. Aged 29, David Woodward was appointed Program Director. His tasks were to establish and initiate and there were no precedents. Yet he had only just completed his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Born in Leamington Spa in 1942, after a degree in Geography at University College, Swansea, he had travelled to Wisconsin for his MA and doctorate. Significantly, Professor Arthur H. Robinson, his supervisor and mentor, was a member of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center's advisory committee. Potentialities that Robinson had doubtless detected quickly manifested themselves as skills during Woodward's decade in charge: editing, grantsmanship, fund-raising, negotiating with printers and publishers, administrating, international networking of scholars in many fields (there were very few historians of cartography as such) and initiating new ventures.

Many scholars were attracted to the centre, including, in 1974, J.B. Harley of Exeter University. Woodward had met Harley on several previous occasions and was to be a frequent visitor at the Harley home in Newton Abbot. It was a coming together that was to have enormous significance for the history-of-cartography field.

Woodward's early research was concerned with map-printing techniques and the early Italian map trade but in 1974 he published a paper in The American Cartographer that revealed a much broader concern: "The Study of the History of Cartography: a suggested framework". It heralded what was to dominate the remainder of his career.

In May 1977, Woodward and Harley were walking on a pathway leading to Highweek Church, Newton Abbot, when they conceived the idea of a six-volume global history of cartography. "Born of a belief in the importance of maps, and their underlying cartographic concepts and techniques, in the long-term development of human society and culture", they said, it was to occupy them for 10 years. By the time that Woodward accepted a professorship in Geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1980, their idea had become an established project. At the time of his death, the project had reached the halfway stage.

From the beginning, Woodward was the project organiser, especially in establishing the History of Cartography Office on the top floor of Science Hall, Madison. He was particularly good at selecting and training staff and excelled at fund-raising. But his department expected him to research and teach. He began to attract research students and to publish on topics such as map lettering, watermarks and the physical analysis of early maps. Not surprisingly, the first volume of The History of Cartography was not published until 10 years after that walk to Highweek.

Harley was the ideas man, commissioned many of the chapters and shared the editing, but Woodward contributed a groundbreaking chapter on medieval mappae mundi and managed the complex team of contributors and assistants. Without him it is questionable that the volume could have appeared.

The scope was relatively narrow - European and Mediterranean cartography from prehistoric to late medieval times - but it revealed the qualities that were to characterise later volumes; eminent contributors, meticulous editing, impressive indexes, copious footnotes, superb map reproductions and all the other apparatus expected of a scholarly work that would be referred to for decades and be an impetus for several generations of researchers. It received its deserved accolades in awards and reviews, making it easier to raise funds for the next volume.

Volume two covered the cartography of Islamic, Asian and traditional societies. Soon after preparations began, Harley moved from Exeter to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, only 70 miles from Madison. The quantity of newly discovered material was such that the volume was eventually published in three books (1992-98). Harley died before the first was published, in 1991, after which Woodward assumed overall control. The three-book volume was monumental.

Yet its scope did not attract a wide readership. Neither did it reflect either Woodward's or Harley's own research interests. Now alone, but with an enormous reputation and a dedicated team, Woodward accelerated work towards volume three. Its scope was the cartography of the European Renaissance and, as such, the first to include his own research interests. In October 2003 the University of Chicago Press Board "enthusiastically approved" publication of the almost 5,000-page typescript.

This gave Woodward enormous satisfaction but it was the very month in which illness compelled him to terminate a lecture tour in Australasia. Publication is scheduled for 2005. With contributions by 64 authors from 10 different countries, the volume will have a much greater impact than its predecessors. But it will not be Woodward's last achievement. As series editor, he had appointed co-editors for both volume four (the European Enlightenment) and volume six (the Twentieth Century) and work on both is underway. Prospects for volume five (the Nineteenth Century) are less clear.

Woodward was planning the project's future until not long before he died. He had many supporters and advisers so that, hopefully, an editor will emerge. It would be a tragedy if the project was not completed and to the incredibly high standards he had set. Late May 2017 - the 40th anniversary of that Highweek walk - would be an apt target date.

David Woodward's achievements manifested a mix of personal qualities, several of which are traceable back to a migratory upbringing in a sequence of English Methodist manses. Intellectually honest, he once admitted that after all those years he was not sure what a map was (latterly, he defined his general interest as "the graphic representation of spatial knowledge"). He learned quickly from new beginnings and personal experiences, as during his decade at the Newberry Library, when his learning curve was ever steepening.

He was also resilient; he, his wife Ros and their daughter Jenny renewed their lives after the death of Jenny's twin sister Rachel in a railway accident in Italy during one of his first research visits to the country he came to know so well.

Woodward was a great team leader and talent spotter. He was both artistic and practical. His handwriting was a joy, his home contained some of his own framed drawings and his sense of design was apparent in the clarity of his own maps. He printed his doctoral dissertation on his own press. Years later, in the basement of his home, he trained others to use it in printing the exquisite broadsheets mailed annually to the project's several hundred financial supporters.

But he was ever open to new technologies, recognising the potentialities for the project of developments in information technology and of new reprographic and printing methods. He had a wide awareness of other fields; and others were aware of him, as in 1995, when he was invited to give the Panizzi Lectures at the British Library. His innovations sometimes had surprising consequences. The Chicago Map Society, which he founded in 1976, was the first of more than a dozen such regional societies in the United States and many others have since been established elsewhere.

One of the last photographs of David Woodward shows him astride the marble replica of the Tasman map of 1644 set in the floor of the entrance hall of the State Library of New South Wales. It is an apt image of the scholar who had come to bestride the world of historical maps.

G. Malcolm Lewis