Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland on 6 July 1766. He was apprenticed
as a weaver with his brother-in-law in 1779, after which he went to work weaving
for various relatives, although his main interests soon became writing poetry
and walking in the countryside. It was a time of political unrest and social
upheaval in America and Europe, and Wilson used his poetry to comment on what
he saw as the unfair treatment of the weavers by their employers. The subjects
of several of his poems were judged to be inflamatory and libelous, and he got
in trouble with the law more than once. He probably spent much time writing
instead of weaving, and as a result lived in poverty and was forced to borrow
money at times to pay court costs and other expenses.
Thus, in May 1794, at
the age of 27, Wilson and his 16 year old nephew left for a better life in America.
They settled near Philadelphia, and he taught school at Milestown. He met William
Bartram, who got him interested in birds.
In 1802, Wilson decided to publish a book
illustrating all the North American birds. He traveled widely, observing and
painting birds, and gathering subscribers for the book. His nine-volume work,
American Ornithology published
in 1808-1814, illustrated 268 species, including descriptions of 26 new species.
Wilson also conducted the first breeding bird census, in Bartram's garden, corrected
earlier errors of taxonomy, and published many observations of natural history.
His 1810 meeting with Audubon probably inspired Audubon to pubish his own book
on birds, and he also influenced many later artists and ornithologists. Wilson died
Further biographical information:
Photograph of portrait by Sully, courtesy of the American Philosophial Society,
| ||Edward H. Burtt, Jr., and William E. Davis, Jr. "Alexander Wilson: the Scot who founded American ornithology," 2013. Harvard/Belknap, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Edward H. Burtt, Jr. and Alan P. Peterson, "Alexander Wilson and
the Founding of North American Ornithology," Chapter 14, pp. 359-386
In William E. Davis, Jr. & Jerome A. Jackson, Eds., 1995,
Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology, Memoirs
of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, No. 12, Cambridge, MA.
Clark Hunter, Ed. "The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson,"
1983. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol 154.
Philadelphia, PA. 456 pp.
Robert Cantwell. "Alexander Wilson, Naturalist and Pioneer," 1961.
J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia. 319 pp.
place of Wilson, Old Swedes Church, Philadelphia, PA. From
"The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, Vol. I-Prose," by
Rev. A. Grosart. 1876. Alex. Gardner, Paisley.
Alexander Wilson—Online biography from web site Alexander Wilson, American Ornithologist, maintained by Janet Haven, American Studies Program, University of Virginia
Alexander Wilson, Father of American Ornithology