James Wood-Mason (1846-1893)

James Wood-Mason (12th December 1845 - 6th May 1893) was a British zoologist who worked in the Indian Museum at Calcutta from 1877 to 1893. He started as an assistant to Professor John Anderson and later succeeded him as Director of the Museum. He made many collections of marine animals and Lepidoptera. He is best known in the entomological world for his work on mantids and phasmids. 


James Wood-Mason was born in Gloucestershire in December 1846 (Alcock, 1893: 110; Anon, 1893b) [but this may be incorrect - it is now beleived he was born in London in 1845]. His father was a medical doctor. James attended Charterhouse School and then Queen’s College Oxford where he was a pupil of J.O. Westwood. He was interested in Natural History and Geology and in 1869 he went to India to become Assistant Curator at the Indian Museum in Calcutta. He was a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society of London and remained a great admirer of Westwood’s work.


Perhaps because he spent most of his adult life in India, it has been difficult to find information about Wood-Mason’s private life. There were two brief anonymous obituaries in British entomological publications when he died (Anon, 1893a, 1893b), and a more detailed mention of his work in an obituary by his successor Alfred Alcock (1893) in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal that was subsequently reproduced in a book about the Indian Museum (Annandale, 1914). One obituary (Anon, 1893b) mentions that he was married and had “several children”. None of the sources give his date of birth, and only one refers to his month of birth (Alcock, 1893). I have been unable to trace a picture of him. He died before celluloid photographic film was invented, so cameras were still rare, particularly outside Europe and the USA, and it is possible that he was never photographed or painted.


Shortly after his arrival in India, Wood-Mason joined the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the leading scientific society in India. He was a regular contributor to the Society’s journal until he became ill toward the end of his life. In 1873 he became the society’s Natural History Secretary and edited the Natural History section of the journal for most of the following 16 years. In 1887 he was elected vice-president of the society. He became Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in the Medical College of Bengal and in 1888 he was made a Fellow of the University of Calcutta.


In 1808 the Asiatic Society formed the first museum in India. In 1866 the British government turned the Asiatic Society Museum into the Imperial Museum by an Act of Parliament and soon it was renamed the Indian Museum. It moved to new buildings in 1875. The task of re-organising it as a multipurpose museum was entrusted to the Superintendent Dr. John Anderson and his assistant, James Wood-Mason. Having started as Assistant Curator in 1869, he became Deputy Superintendent, and when Dr. John Anderson retired in 1887, he became Superintendent of the Indian Museum, a position he held until his death.


James Wood-Mason became ill with Bright’s disease, a kidney disease which causes back pain, vomiting, fever and oedema. Over a period of several years the effects on Wood-Mason became more severe and incapacitating, and on 5th April 1993, in a critical state of health, he left Calcutta to return to England. On the journey back to England, he died at sea on 6th May 1893 at the age of 47.


Wood-Mason was involved in several explorations. In 1872 he went to the Andermans, working mainly on marine fauna, but also collected insects. In March 1873 he set out to the Nicobars and other islands in the Bay of Bengal with the famous ornithologist Allan Octavian Hume, and with the geologists Dr. Ferdinand Stoliczka and Dr. Dougall.


He travelled on Her Majesty’s Indian Marine Survey Steamer Investigator in 1888, and worked on Crustacea in the latter part of his life. He described some new species of Crustaceans collected by the Investigator, some of which were not published until after his death. At least ten marine organisms have been named after Wood-Mason, many posthumously: Bathybembyx woodmasoni Smith, 1895, Erugosquilla woodmasoni (Kemp, 1911), Scalpellum woodmasoni Annandale, 1906, Verum woodmasoni (Annandale), Rectopalicus woodmasoni (Alcock, 1900), Heterocarpus woodmasoni Alcock, 1901, Coryphaenoides woodmasoni (Alcock, 1890), Ichnopus woodmasoni (Giles, 1890), Bopyrione woodmasoni (Chopra, 1923), Thalamita woodmasoni Alcock, 1899.


Wood-Mason described at least 60 species and 14 genera of mantids, and created the valid family Eremiaphilidae. In addition to his work on mantids, Wood-Mason published 13 papers on phasmids, describing 24 new species and 3 new genera. One of these papers also contained work on mantids (Wood-Mason, 1877). His last publication on phasmids was in 1879, but he continued publishing work on mantids almost until he died; his catalogue of mantids in the Indian Museum (Wood-Mason, 1889 & 1891) was his last mantis publication.


For a bibliography of Wood-Mason’s mantis papers see the references in Erhmann (2002).


Alcock, A.W. (1893) Obituary of James Wood-Mason. Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, p. 110-113.


Annandale, N. (1914) The Indian Museum 1814-1914. The Trustees of the Indian Mueum, Calcutta.


Anon (1893a) [Obituary of Professor Wood-Mason]. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of London, 1893: lvi.


Anon (1893b) Obituary, Professor James Wood-Mason. Entomologists’ Monthly Magazine, 29: 145-146.


Wood-Mason, J. (1877) On a small collection of Orthopterous insects of the families Phasmidae & Mantidae from Australia & New Britain, with descriptions of four new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, (4)20: 74 77.


Wood-Mason, J. (1889) Catalogue of Mantodea, with descriptions of new genera and species, and an enumeration of the specimens, in the collection of the Indian Museum, Calcutta. 1: 1-48. Indian Museum, Calcutta.


Wood-Mason, J. (1891) Catalogue of Mantodea, with descriptions of new genera and species, and an enumeration of the specimens, in the collection of the Indian Museum, Calcutta. 2: 49-66. Indian Museum, Calcutta.


The following comment was added by a member of the Scratchpad Team on Thu, 27th November 2008:

James Wood-Mason was Born 12th December 1845

He was born in 1845 not 1846. I have a copy of his birth certificate He was born in Cripplegate East London, not Gloucestershire. He married a distant cousin of mine named Louisa Robertson Cooper. I have only traced one child so far.George Ludovic born 1880.

Wed, 2008-08-20 17:21 -- pbragg
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