Scientist, educator, college president. Born in Carlisle, England, on May 30, 1828, James Woodrow, son of Reverend Thomas Woodrow and Marion Williamson, moved with his family to Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1837. After graduating in 1849 with highest honors from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and teaching in academies in Alabama, in 1853 he became a professor at Oglethorpe University in Georgia. In the summer of 1853 Woodrow studied under Louis Agassiz at Harvard and then used a leave of absence to study at Heidelberg, receiving his Ph.D. in 1856. On August 4, 1857, he married Felie S. Baker, daughter of a Georgia clergyman. Declining an offer to lecture at Heidelberg, Woodrow returned to Oglethorpe, teaching there until 1861. While at Oglethorpe, he studied Hebrew and theology and eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister.
During the Civil War, Woodrow was chief of the Confederacy’s chemical laboratory in Columbia. In 1861 he accepted the newly founded “Perkins Professorship of Natural Sciences in Connexion with Revelation” at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution. Woodrow edited and published the Southern Presbyterian Review, a quarterly journal, from 1861 until 1885 and the Southern Presbyterian, a weekly periodical, from 1865 until 1893. He also operated a commercial printing business. In addition to teaching at the seminary, he was a professor (1869–1872, 1880–1897) at South Carolina College, where he later served as president from 1891 to 1897.
Despite possessing superb scientific credentials, Woodrow in his chief publications dealt with religious topics. He became embroiled in a dispute that developed in the Presbyterian Church in 1884 and attracted nationwide interest. Even though he had not accepted Darwinism, some influential Presbyterians considered him suspect in that regard. As a result, the seminary’s board of directors asked him to publish his views on evolution. Woodrow reviewed the evidence and changed his position. In May 1884 he gave an address in support of Darwinian theory, and it was published in the Southern Presbyterian Review (July 1884). In September 1884 the board debated the way to handle the presentation of such ideas in the seminary. Woodrow won the first battle in what became known as the “Woodrow War.” Nevertheless, conservatives in the church persisted in their attempts to have him removed, and he was dismissed from his professorship in December 1884. Reinstated in December 1885, Woodrow was again dismissed by the board in December 1886. Woodrow appealed to the Southern Presbyterian Church’s highest court, the General Assembly, which rejected his plea in May 1888. The Woodrow War did not influence his standing in the church, had no effect on his faculty position at South Carolina College, and was not an issue when he was chosen president of the college in 1891. He was awarded four honorary degrees, and in 1914 a new dormitory was named for him at the University of South Carolina. Survived by his wife and three daughters, Woodrow died on January 17, 1907, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Columbia.
Anderson, William D., Jr. “Andrew C. Moore’s ‘Evolution Once More’: The Evolution-Creationism Controversy from an Early 1920s Perspective.” Bulletin [Alabama Museum of Natural History] 22 (November 2002): iii–iv, 1–35.
Eaton, Clement. “Professor James Woodrow and the Freedom of Teaching in the South.” Journal of Southern History 28 (February 1962): 3–17.
Elder, Fred Kingsley. “James Woodrow.” South Atlantic Quarterly 46 (October 1947): 483–95.
Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson, Jr. Natural History Investigations in South Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.