2016 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Wilson. Born in Paisley on the 6th July 1766, Wilson spent over half his life in Scotland before leaving for America. Poet, artist, scientist and social commentator, he rose to become one of the towering figures in the history of ornithology.
Educated at Paisley Grammar School, Wilson received only five years of formal education before his mother died and he was taken out of school to start work, first as a cow herder and then at the age of 13 as an apprentice weaver.
Like many weavers Wilson developed an interest in poetry. His most famous poem Watty and Meg, published anonymously, was generally assumed to be the work of Robert Burns.
In trouble with the law over a libellous poem written in 1792 and again in 1794 over the distribution of radical propaganda, Wilson decided to immigrate to America arriving in Delaware on the 14th July 1794.
It was in America that Wilson’s passion for the study of birds developed. His intention to produce the most complete account of the birds of America took him five years, resulting in the nine-volume American Ornithology, the last two volumes of which were published posthumously.
Universally known as the “Father of American Ornithology”, Wilson was the first person to attempt to illustrate and document all the birds of North America and American Ornithology was the first significant publication on the subject. In total 268 species were described and illustrated, including 26 species new to science.
Wilson collected and described birds from most states and territories in the United States of 1804-1813; he classified species according to the Linnaean system, helping to promote the adoption of the scientific method in the U.S. Additionally, Wilson illustrated all the species he described, defying 18th century conventions of biological illustration and striving for realistic depictions of birds in their native habitats.
A pioneer, Wilson introduced a truly scientific approach to ornithology – observing species in the field, studying the living bird in its habitat, writing the descriptions and illustrating birds in poses to aid identification, basically providing the blueprint for modern field guides. He used specimens to scrutinise their physical form enabling him to illustrate the anatomical features of each species, an attention to detail which was unprecedented in bird illustrations at that time.
American Ornithology would have been a major undertaking for a professional supported by an institution or benefactor but Wilson was not in that position, nor was he independently wealthy. In fact Wilson had no formal education beyond the age of ten.
Charles Lucien Bonaparte, French biologist and ornithologist, and nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, updated and expanded Wilson’s American Ornithology publishing four supplementary volumes between 1825 and 1833. This, together with Wilson’s original work became the predecessor of the Checklist of North American Birds published by the American Ornithologists’ Union and established American Ornithology as the point of origin for the adoption of scientific method in the United States.
Five species of bird have been named after Wilson: Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Phalarope and Wilson’s Warbler.
Wilson’s legacy is such that the Wilson Ornithological Society founded in 1888 is named in his honour. Its mission to “promote a strong working relationship among all who study birds” has resulted in a worldwide membership.
A display celebrating Wilson’s work is now on at Paisley Museum. It is free to enter and will run until Sunday the 4th September.
by Nicola Mcintyre at Paisley Museum