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Alexander Wilson

author of the first book on birds of America

Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland, on July 6, 1766. He was apprenticed to a weaver at the age of 13, but after a few years he rebelled and became a peddler. While he tramped around Scotland selling trinkets, he also composed a number of dialect poems focusing on the life of the peasant class. The most famous of these poems, Watty and Meg, is said to have sold some 100,000 copies in the span of a few weeks and to have even caught the attention of Robert Burns. During the labor troubles of the 1780's, Wilson was especially sympathetic to the causes of the weavers and published a number of lampoons in verse that got him convicted of libel. Unable to pay the subsequent fines he was imprisoned for a time, and then decided it was time to leave Scotland for America. He emigrated to America as a deck passenger, arriving at Philadelphia with little more than a gun and the clothes on his back in 1794.

Fortunately for Wilson, he soon met William Bartram, a schoolmaster and naturalist, who encouraged him to pursue a career in natural history. Wilson soon found himself on a mission to collect and draw all of the birds of North America he could find. In 1806 he obtained the assistant-editorship of the American edition of Ree's Encyclopedia, which provided him the means and leisure for this massive undertaking. Wilson's work resulted in the 13-volume classic American Ornithology, the first volume of which appeared in 1808. The earliest work of its kind to appear in any branch of science in America, American Ornithology included illustrations of 268 different species of birds, 26 of which had never before been described. Only seven volumes of American Ornithology were actually published in Wilson's lifetime, however, as he died of dysentery in Philadelphia on August 23, 1813; the other six volumes were published over a period of twenty years after his death.

illustration from American Ornithology
illustration from American Ornithologist

Several species of birds have been named in Wilson's honor, including Wilson's storm-petrel, Wilson's plover, Wilson's phalarope, and Wilson's warbler. The warbler genus Wilsonia was also named for him, by Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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This page was last updated on 07/05/2018.