Alexander Wilson the ornithologist was born 250 years ago today.


Leaning up against the wall next to my office door at the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP), is an extremely heavy stone tablet bearing a dedication to Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the Scottish-born poet and so-called “Father of American Ornithology”. The tablet was donated to ANSP in 1923, on behalf of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia, an organization promoting Scottish heritage, and dedicated in a ceremony attended by Witmer Stone and other local ornithologists, only later to have an embarrassing error revealed: the date of Wilson’s death (1813) had been accidentally inscribed 1833!

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Stone tablet donated to the ANSP for display, and dedicated in 1923, but bearing the incorrect date of death. It now resides in the hallway of the Ornithology Department.

Wilson was born on this day exactly 250 years ago—July 6, 1766—in Paisley, Scotland. He left that country on May 23, 1794, to seek his fortune in America, and celebrated his 28th birthday at sea, bound for Philadelphia, where he would make a meager living as a schoolmaster, poet, and eventual ornithologist. His life was forever altered in 1803, when he moved to the Kingsessing neighborhood in what is now West Philadelphia, and made the acquaintance of William Bartram (1739–1823) and thereafter became obsessed with the study of American birds. Fun fact: I live in this neighborhood today, just a block from the now-closed Alexander Wilson Public School, and Bartram’s Garden is still a local birding hotspot (eBird).

It was auspicious timing for both men. Bartram was actually the first ornithologist born on American soil, having sent bird specimens and behavioral notes to the English naturalist George Edwards (1694–1773) as early as the 1750s, and his famous Travels… (1792) was chock full of valuable ornithological information. But something changed in 1802, about a year before he met Wilson. Apparently for the first time, Bartram began to keep a (mostly) daily journal documenting the natural history of his family estate Bartram’s Garden. It would become the first multi-year record of arrival dates of migratory birds in the New World, and its entries overlapped Wilson’s entire ornithological career. (Side note: There is no mention of Wilson in the journal, which contains nothing but dated natural history observations.) With Bartram as his tutor, and with access to the library of rare books at Bartram’s Garden, Wilson was able to produce the first scientific work with color plates dedicated to American birds and set a new standard for scientific ornithology: the epic American Ornithology in 8 volumes (and a 9th posthumous volume). Yes, the tale has a sad ending. Wilson died in August 1813, having literally worked himself to death—his last written words were a list of birds he had yet to draw.

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Closeup of the head of the American Robin, in the original copper plate engraved by Alexander Lawson, which begat Wilson’s American Ornithology, Vol. 1, Pl. 2. (Photo by MRH, courtesy of the Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University).

To celebrate Wilson’s 250th birthday (6/6/2016), I visited the ANSP Archives to see for myself, the first two copper plates from American Ornithology Volume 1 (1808), engraved by Alexander Lawson (1772–1846) from Wilson’s original drawings. On the surface the plates appear old and tarnished, but the engravings are in excellent condition. Lawson’s work was masterful, with incredible detail shown in each feather barb. I had to angle my head to fully appreciate the closely spaced strokes in the face of the American Robin (see pictured). And to think that it was the reverse image that Lawson produced, engraving the opposite of Wilson’s sketch into a copper plate with such precision! For example, look at the number “2” engraved in reverse. But so much of the detail was masked when the color was applied to the final image, especially in the black feathers of the robin’s head. Here, the intricacies of Wilson’s artwork go unnoticed, as does Lawson’s skill with the engraving tool.

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I appreciate Wilson most for the knowledge he gave us. For example, he was the first person to understand that the Veery (Catharus fuscescens) and Hermit Thrush (C. guttatus) were actually two different species! They were lumped as Turdus minor before Wilson corrected things in 1812. My own research on American birds was fundamentally shaped by Wilson—more reason to celebrate this anniversary.

Wilson himself most likely handled these plates, inspecting them for flaws before the first printing of American Ornithology. He must have marveled at Lawson’s handiwork. It is fun to think that he would also have tilted his head in the very same way, trying to catch the light at just the right angle, to reveal just a little more of what birds are.

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One of the original copper plates engraved by Alexander Lawson for Wilson’s American Ornithology. Hand-colored prints made from this plate (#2) were first published in 1808. (Photo by MRH, courtesy of the Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University)

Many thanks to archivist Jennifer Vess for assisting me with the Lawson plates. Also thanks to Scott McConnell, who discussed the origins of the stone tablet in his excellent book Witmer Stone: Fascination of Nature, solving a mystery for me.

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Categories: History of Science, OrnithologyTags: , , ,

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