Alexander Wilson

Posted by on April 6, 2017 in History Stories | Comments Off on Alexander Wilson

Teacher, Father of Ornithology

(1749—May 24, 1831)
Buried at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’)

Alexander Wilson was born on July 6, 1766, in Paisley, Scotland. At the age of 13 he apprenticed in the weaving trade spending ten years as a weaver. He then began traveling about Scotland as a peddler and writing dialect poems, which he published. Discouraged by poverty and by political persecution because of some satires he wrote, he immigrated to America
in 1794.

Entirely self-educated, Alexander Wilson, supported himself as a teacher in the Philadelphia area. In 1802, he took charge of a school at Gray’s Ferry, near the home and gardens of William Bartram. William Bartram helped Alexander Wilson learn to draw birds. Bartram offered the use of his library so Wilson could study illustrations of American birds. Wilson was convinced that no single work on American birds was free from defect, and he decided to publish a book illustrating all the North American birds. He traveled widely, watching and painting birds and collecting subscribers for his book. The result was a nine volume American Ornithology which illustrated 268 birds, 26 had not previously been described. Wilson’s health broke down while he was preparing the eighth volume of American Ornithology for publication, and he died in Philadelphia on Aug. 23, 1813. His friend George Ord completed the eighth and ninth volumes from Wilson’s manuscript notes and saw them through publication in 1814. Charles Lucien Bonaparte published the four final volumes in 1825-1833.

American Ornithology is noted for the elegance of the essays on individual birds and for the excellent illustrations, which Wilson did himself. Although skilled as an artist, he needed the help of Alexander Lawson to translate his drawings into the plates from which the illustrations were printed. American Ornithology was acclaimed by both American and European scientists as the best work on American birds, and it went through two subsequent editions

Alexander Wilson’s tombstone is one of the tombstones which were restored in our graveyard.