Alexander Wilson (ornithologist)

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Alexander Wilson
Wilson Alexander 1766-1813.jpg
Alexander Wilson
BornJuly 6, 1766
Paisley, Scotland
DiedAugust 23, 1813(1813-08-23) (aged 47)
Scientific career
Alexander Wilson signature.svg

Alexander Wilson (July 6, 1766 – August 23, 1813) was a Scottish-American poet, ornithologist, naturalist, and illustrator. Identified by George Ord as the "Father of American Ornithology", Wilson is regarded as the greatest American ornithologist prior to Audubon.[1]


Early life

Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland on July 6, 1766. He was apprenticed as a weaver in 1779.

Poetry and emigration

While working as a weaver in Paisley, Wilson became seriously interested in poetry. He was inspired by the dialect verse of Robert Burns, who was only seven years older.

In addition to ballads and pastoral pieces, Wilson wrote satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. His authorship of a satirical poem with severe personal statements about a mill owner resulted in Wilson's arrest. His work was said to be inflammatory and libelous; he was often in trouble with the law. Because he devoted little time to his trade as a weaver, Wilson lived in poverty. In 1794, he decided to emmigrate to America.[2]

From teaching to ornithology

Milestown School in the 19th century

With a nephew, Wilson left Scotland in May 1794 at the age of 27 and settled in Pennsylvania. Opportunities were scarce for weavers in the Philadelphia area, and Wilson turned to teaching.

Wilson taught at the Milestown School in Bristol Township, the present-day East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, for five years from 1796 to 1801.[3] He then moved on to teach briefly in New Jersey.

Eventually, Wilson settled into a position at Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania, and took up residence in nearby Kingsessing. There, he met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson's interest in ornithology and painting.

Resolved to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America, Wilson traveled widely, collecting and painting. He also secured subscribers to fund his work, the nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated in its pages, 26 had not previously been described.

A 2013 biology of Wilson indicated that his illustrations of birds in poses was an inspiration for James Audubon and other illustrators and naturalists. [4]


Wilson statue at Paisley Abbey

Wilson died on August 23, 1813, "of dysentery, overwork, and chronic poverty" according to one report.[5] He was buried in Philadelphia at Gloria Dei Church cemetery.[6][7]

His death came before the completion of the ninth volume of American Ornithology, which was finished and published by Wilson's friend and patron George Ord.[8] Ord was buried not far away in the same cemetery.[8]


In Paisley, a statue of Wilson was erected on the grounds of Paisley Abbey. A memorial on the banks of River Cart, near the Hammills rapids and waterfall, commemorates Wilson's connection to that city. The memorial is inscribed "Remember Alexander Wilson 1766–1813. Here was his boyhood playground."[9]

A genus of warblers, Wilsonia (now obsolete), was named for Wilson by Charles Lucien Bonaparte. Several species of bird were also named in honor of Wilson, including the Wilson's storm-petrel, Wilson's plover, Wilson's phalarope, Wilson's snipe, and Wilson's warbler.

According to an article about his life, Wilson's meeting with James Audubon "probably inspired Audubon to publish his own book on birds, and he also influenced many later artists and ornithologists". [10]

The Wilson Journal of Ornithology and the Wilson Ornithological Society also bear his name.


Published works

  • Wilson, Alexander. n.d. The tears of Britain. A poem. OCLC: 166684875.
  • Wilson, Alexander. 1808–1814. American Ornithology; or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States: Illustrated with Plates Engraved and Colored from Original drawings taken from Nature.
  • Wilson, Alexander. 1800. List of pieces written by Mr. Alexander Wilson, now in Philadelphia. [Paisley, Scotland]: Printed by Andrew Young. At head of title: Paisley repository. No. VIII. Probable decade of imprint from NSTC. "The American blue bird [by A. Wilson, in verse]": p. 2-3; "The Baltimore bird [by A. Wilson, part in verse]": p. 4.
  • Wilson, Alexander. 1800. Watty and Meg: or the wife reclaimed, together with : Habbie Sampson and his wife or, a new way of raising the wind : Donald and his dog : the West Kintra weaver turned teetotaler : the Loss o' the pack : John Tamson's cart : Takin' it out o' his mouth. Paisley, Scotland: W. Wilson.
  • Wilson, Alexander. 1800. Rab and Ringan: a tale as delivered in the Pantheon, Edinburgh by the author of Watty and Meg; to which is added The twa cats and the cheese, a tale. Glasgow: Brash & Reid.
  • Wilson, Alexander. 1801. Oration, on the power and value of national liberty delivered to a large assembly of citizens, at Milestown, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, March 4, 1801. Philadelphia: Printed by H. Maxwell. Reprinted in Early American imprints. Second series;, no. 1668.
  • Wilson, Alexander. Papers, 1806–1813. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. This material relates to Alexander B. Grosart's biography of Wilson. There are notes and copies of letters and documents, including a copy of Wilson's will. There is one poem by Wilson, "The Last Wish," and an 1806 letter to William Bartram.
  • Wilson, Alexander. 1814. The Foresters: A Poem, Descriptive of a Pedestrian Journey to the Falls of Niagara in the Autumn of 1804. Newtown (PA): S. Siegfried & J. Wilson. Also published in the magazine The Port Folio in 1809/1810.


  1. ^ Hunter (1983), p. 111.
  3. ^ Hunter (1983), pp. 65–68.
  4. ^, Alexander Wilson The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology
  5. ^, Alexander Wilson’s Birds
  6. ^ Hunter (1983), p. 113.
  7. ^ Alexander Wilson at Find a Grave.
  8. ^ a b Rhoads, Samuel N. (1908). George Ord. p. 8.
  9. ^ "Renfrewshire: Heritage and Local History Exhibits". Archived from the original on October 23, 2014. Retrieved June 30, 2013.


Further reading

  • Burtt, Edward H., Jr.; Davis, William E., Jr. (2013). Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Cantwell, Robert (1961). Alexander Wilson: Naturalist and Pioneer. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company. LCCN 61-12246.
  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Wilson, Alexander" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Crichton, Thomas (1819). Biographical Sketch of the Late Alexander Wilson to a Young Friend. Paisley, Scotland: J. Neilson.
  • Mearns, Barbara & Richard. Biographies for Birdwatchers. ISBN 0-12-487422-3.
  • Ord, George (1828). Sketch of the Life of Alexander Wilson. Harrison Hall. Expanded from Ord's vol. 9 of American Ornithology.
  • Paton, Allan Park (1863). Wilson the Ornithologist: A New Chapter in His Life. Longmans, Green & Company.
  • Plate, Robert (1966). Alexander Wilson: Wanderer in the Wilderness. New York: David McKay Company, Inc. LCCN 66-11348.
  • Rothman, Irving N. (1973). "Alexander Wilson's Forest Adventure: the Sublime and the Satirical in Wilson's Poem 'The Foresters'". Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History. Edinburgh University Press. 6 (4): 242–254. doi:10.3366/jsbnh.1973.6.4.242. ISSN 0037-9778.
  • Stone, Witmer (October 1906). "Some Unpublished Letters of Alexander Wilson and John Abbot". The Auk. 23 (4): 361–368.
  • Wilson, James Southall (1906). Alexander Wilson, Poet–Naturalist: A Study of His Life with Selected Poems. New York: Neale Publishing Company.

External links


Other sources