Wilson, Alexander

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Paisley, Scotland, 6 July 1766; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 23 August 1813)


Wilson’s background was so remote from scientific interests that his emergence in the last five years of his life as an ornithologist, and as founder of the science in America, is one of the most remarkable aspects of his extraordinary career. His father was a smuggler who, after his marriage to Mary McNab–comely and pious “and in every way (in a good sense) a superior person” –reformed and become a prosperous silk gauze weaver and loom operator in Paisley. Alexander, their third child and only son, was beptized by Paisley’s most famous citizen, the Reverend John Witherspoon, later president of Princeton and a leading figure in the America Revolution. The boy studied at the Paisley Grammar School, and since he was precocious was intended for the ministry and placed in charge of a divinity student–the only formal education he received. From an early age he read widely, since the relatively high cultural standard of Paisley made books readily available.

Wilson’s mother died when he was ten years old, and his father, marrying again almost immediately, returned to smuggling. Wilson was placed on a farm as a herd boy, and at thirteen was apprenticed to a weaver, William Duncan, the husband of his sister Mary. When he ended his apprenticeship at the age of sixteen, he became a peddler, tramping country roads across Scotland with a pack of cloth that he had woven with his brother-in-law. He wrote poetry, especially after the publication of Burns’s first book in 1786 awakened Scottish intel-lectuals to the poetry of the common life and language around them; and he sketched and made his own designs for the cloth he wove. Both efforts were evidence of a powerful creative impulse seeking an outlet, but could scarcely be said to foreshadow the assured prose and the superb bird paintings that distinguished The American Ornithology. Nor was Wilson’s home environment one that fostered scrupulously exact observation. His father took over an ancient, half-ruined castle. the Tower of Auchinbathie, near Lochwinnoch, where he operated illegal stills and hired weavers to work smuggled silk. Smuggling was not so sternly condemned in the west of Scotland as to make the household disreputable,but secrecy and the rural underworld prevented the development of disciplined habits such as the Ornithology was to require of Wilson.

After painful struggles with finances and his self-distrust, Wilson published a volume of poetry in 1790. It gained him favorable notice without improving his station in life. Thomas Crichton, Paisley’s most eminent man of letters, characterized Wilson’s poems accurately: “For original ideas, a masculine superiority of language, high graphic and descriptive character–especially his Scottish poems–they will stand a fair comparison with any of our Scottish poets, Burns not excepted. But Wilson is far short of that poet in fine poetic imagination.” Wilson’s masterpiece, Watty and Meg, a popular favorite for generations, was attributed to Burns, a fair indication of its hold on the public.

Watty and Meg was published anonymously, Wilson being in prison at the time. He was jailed during an obscure dispute, in a period of great social stress, with William Sharp, a wealthy Paisley mill owner. Wilson published a poem “The Shark” accusing Sharp of stealthily lengthening the measuring devices by which his employees were paid, all weaving then being piecework. Shortly before the poem appeared Sharp received an anonymous letter containing an offer to suppress the poem for a payment of five guineas, which made the charge against Wilson not libel, but blackmail. Wilson was arrested, roughly handled, convicted, ordered to beg the pardon of God and Mr. Sharp, to burn the poem in the public square, and to pay fines and damages amounting to £60 sterling–more than a weaver’s annual earnings. These were reduced on appeal, but Wilson was in and out of court and jail for two years; and his friends, who signed peace bonds, were threatened with ruin if he became involved in conflict with any of His Majesty’s servants, something that became increasingly likely in that time of riot and disorder. His love affair with Martha McLean, a Paisley girl of a well-to-do family, was broken off. Sir William Jardine in his otherwise laudatory biography of Wilson held the Sharp episode to be the only disreputable act of Wilson’s career. Alexander Grosart, a Paisley historian, concluded that the charge in the original poem had been true, and would have been aired in a trial for libel; the charge of blackmail prevented any such disclosure. Wilson was utterly disheartened when he sailed for America in May 1794, telling Crichton, “I must get out of my mind.”

Against the waste and disorder of his years in Scotland, Wilson’s achievement in The American Ornithology became phenomenal. The development of the work in his mind can be traced in personal notes scattered throughout the Ornithology and in Wilson’s poems and letters after he settled near Philadelphia. He had an initial interest in birds as game and the folklore and hunting skills they involved, inspired by the immense flights of ducks and geese over the school in which he taught (1796–1801) at Milestown near the Delaware. There was also a growing awareness of the wealth and variety of the bird life in the wilderness, marked especially during his long journeys on foot to a farm in western New York, which he had purchased for the family of his sister Mary, whose husband had abandoned her. As he sketched from life the birds his students brought him, Wilson developed his skill in drawing. His observations became more exact as he studied the hummingbirds, orioles, owls, grosbeaks, finches, and hawks that he kept as pets and watched in the woods and fields. As early as 1803 he wrote to Crichton that he was beginning to draw all of America’s finest birds. During the four years (1802–1806) he taught at Gray’s Ferry, his vague plans came into focus through his association with the venerable naturalist William Bartram, whose home in Bartram’s garden, Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, was near his school; but he was still so little prepared that he asked Bartram to identify some of the birds he sketched. “I am miserably deficient in many requirements,” he wrote Bartram, in reference to the Ornithology. “Botany, Mineralogy and Drawing I most ardently wish to be instructed in . . . Can I make any progress in Botany, sufficient to enable me to be useful, and what would be the most proper way to proceed?”

Wilson was forty years old when he left teaching to try to classify scientifically and to describe accurately and picture in faithful color all the species of birds in America. His plan called for a ten-volume work to be sold by subscription for $120 a set. Samuel Bradford, a Philadelphia publisher, agreed to bring out one volume, and to continue the series if Wilson could secure 200 subscribers on the strength of that sample. Volume I, which included such familiar birds as the bluejay, the Baltimore oriole, and the robin, with two to six birds pictured on each of ten colored plates, appeared in the fall of 1808. With this in hand Wilson set out through the northeastern states, signing up subscribers, the first of the great journeys that carried him more than ten thousand miles in the next five years. The southern trip that followed was more successful. With the encouragement of President Thomas Jefferson, who subscribed and urged others to do so, Wilson made his way through the South to Savannah, signing up 250 subscribers and collecting specimens to be pictured in later volumes. He also formed lasting relations with naturalists, including Stephen Elliott and John Abbot, who provided him with specimens and accurate information he could not otherwise have obtained. Forty-two birds were included in Volume II, and when that book was in the hands of the printer in January 1810, Wilson set out on an amazing journey, six wilderness months down the Ohio by rowboat and over the Natchez Trace by horseback, to New Orleans, some three thousand miles, at a cost of $455, but returning a treasury of heretofore unknown species, and enough new subscribers to bring the total to more than 450.

At Louisville, according to Audubon’s later recollections, Wilson tried to induce him to become a subscriber, and became depressed when Audubon showed him his own portfolio of bird drawings that were superior to those in Wilson’s book. Wilson himself made no mention of the encounter in his letters or in the long account of his journey he published after his return to Philadelphia in The Port Folio. Doubt was cast on Audubon’s account during his long conflict with George Ord, one of Wilson’s literary executors. In a pioneering study of Wilson, Elsa Guerdrum Allen concluded that Audubon’s ambitions were awakened by his first view of Wilson’s book. In any case it is unlikely that Wilson would have reacted so strongly at the sight of a more accomplished artist’s work in his own field; John Abbot was also a technically trained artist whose bird paintings are of very high quality, and Wilson remained on close terms with Abbot. The distinction of Wilson’s work is in the unity of his paintings and his text, and when individual works are inferior to Audubon’s splendid and spectacular plates (although in many cases, such as the snowy owl and the Mississippi kite, Wilson’s work is plainly superior), Wilson’s birds are always birds rather than decorations, supplementing and adding to the text, in an unparalleled catalog of nature: his birds are really wild.

Wilson’s third volume appeared in February 1811, and the fourth only seven months later; both were editions of 500 copies. “I have sacrificed everything to print my Ornithology,” Wilson wrote to the botanist André Michaux. Except for the engraver Alexander Lawson, who cut most of the plates, Wilson worked almost without assistance. He oversaw all details; hired and supervised the colorists; secured virtually all of the subscribers; familiarized himself with the scientific literature of each species; pictured each bird; and composed his brief, engaging, and exact descriptions that are often masterpieces of nature writing.

Before his death of dysentery at the age of forty-seven, Wilson had completed eight volumes of the Ornithology, and the drawings for the ninth volume; he had painted and described 264 species. He added forty-eight new species to those previously known to exist in the United States, prepared good life histories for ninety-four species, and maintained a standard so exacting that in a century and a half only a score of minor errors have been found in the Ornithology. Francis Herrick the biographer of Audubon, wrote, “When we consider that Wilson’s entire working period on the Ornithology was not over ten years . . . the achievement of this man is little short of marvelous’ –an accurate appraisal, except that the period was nearer five years than ten.

During the economic stress of the War of 1812, Wilson’s colorists left him, Bradford’s interest in the Ornithology ebbed, and Wilson, forced to color many of the plates himself, also acted as a collector of the money due from subscribers. His social life had long since ceased to exist (although he was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in 1813) apart from his friendship with the family of Jacob Miller, a wealthy landowner he had known in his schoolteaching days at Milestown. The only intimate relation during days of unceasing but often inspired work was with Sarah Miller, the daughter of the family, fifteen years younger than Wilson, to whom he was reportedly engaged and to whom he left everything he owned, including the rights to the Ornithology.


I. Original Works. Virtually all of Wilson’s nature writing is included in The American Ornithology, 9 vols. (Philadelphia, 1808–1813), and most of his journals, travel accounts, and many letters are in Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, the Reverend Alexander B. Grosart, ed., 2 vols. (Paisley, 1876).

II. Secondary Literature. George Ord prepared a biographical introduction to the 9th vol. of the Ornithology, 2nd ed. (1824–1825), which was supplanted by a much fuller work by Sir William Jardine as the introduction to the 3-vol. edition of the Ornithology, prepared “with additions” by Charles Lucien Bonaparte (London, 1832).

Other biographies include Elsa Guerdrum Allen, The History of American Ornithology Before Audubon (New York, 1969): Robert Cantwell, Alexander Wilson (Paisley, 1819): W. M. Hetherington, Memoir of Alexander Wilson (Paisley, 1819): W. M. Hetherington, Memoir of Alexander Wilson (Edinburgh, 1831): William B. O. Peabody, Life of Alexander Wilson (Boston. 1839): Emerson Stringham, Alexander Wilson, a Founder Of Scientific Ornithology (Kerrville, Tex. 1958); and James Southall Wilson, Alexander Wilson, Poet-Naturalist (New York, 1906).

Robert Cantwell

Wilson, Alexander

views updated May 21 2018


(b. St. Andrews, Scotland, 1714; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 18 October 1786)


Wilson was the son of Patrick Wilson, the town clerk of St. Andrews, and of Clara Fairfoul. He was very young when his father died, and he was brought up under the care of his mother. He studied at the College of St. Andrews, receiving an M.A. in 1733. He then was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary, first in St. Andrews, later in London. A chance visit to a typefoundry brought about a change in his career. Struck by an idea for an improved method of making type, he returned to St. Andrews in 1739 and set up a typefoundry there in 1742 with the assistance of a friend. The foundry was enlarged and moved to Camlachie, near Glasgow, in 1744. Since his student days Wilson had maintained an active interest in astronomy, and in 1760 was appointed–mainly through the influence of the duke of Argyll–first professor of practical astronomy at the University of Glasgow. He retained this post until 1784.

In 1774 Wilson published some observations, which showed that sunspots were depressions in the luminous matter surrounding the sun. This was not an entirely original hypothesis, for it had been suggested earlier by Christoph Schemer, Philippe de La Hire, and Jacques Cassini. Nevertheless, Wilson’s use of strict geometrical reasoning in his demonstration made his argument very forceful, and led to a renewed burst of enthusiasm for sunspot observations.

By carefully studying the apparent change in appearance of a spot as it crossed the solar disk, Wilson observed that the penumbra appeared narrowest on the side of it that was nearest the center of the sun, and widest on the side nearest the edge. He noted that this could be explained as an effect of perspective if the spot were a funnel-shaped depression, with the umbra corresponding to the bottom of the funnel and the penumbra to the sloping sides. Going beyond his observational data, Wilson conjectured that the sun was an immense dark globe surrounded by a thin shell of luminous matter. According to this view, sunspots were excavations in the luminous matter caused “by the working of some sort of elastic vapour, which is generated within the dark globe.”

Wilson’s interpretation of sunspots was challenged by Lalande in France, but supported by Sir William Herschel in England. Herschel then developed the interpretation into a general description of the solar constitution, which remained standard until the advent of spectroscopic investigations.

Wilson also speculated on a question posed by Newton in his Opticks (4th ed. [London, 1730], query 28): “What hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another?” His answer, published in a short anonymous tract entitled Thoughts on General Gravitation, was that the entire universe partook in a periodic motion around some “grand centre of general gravitation.”

Wilson was awarded an honorary M.D. from St. Andrews in 1763, and was one of the original members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1752 he married Jean Sharp. His portrait, a medallion by James Tassie, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.


I. Original Works. Wilson’s works are “Observations of the Transit of Venus Over the Sun,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,59 (1769), 333–338; “An Account of the Remarkable Cold Observed at Glasgow, in the Month of January, 1768,” ibid.,61 (1771), 326–331; A Specimen of Some of the Printing Types Cast in the Foundry of Alexander Wilson and Sons (Glasgow[?], 1772); “Observations on the Solar Spots,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,64 (1774), 1–30; “An Improvement Proposed in the Cross Wires of Telescopes,” ibid.,64 (1774), 105–107; Thoughts on General Gravitation, and Views Thence Arising as to the State of the Universe (n.p., 1777[?]); and “An Answer to the Objectives Stated by M. De la Lande, in the Memoirs of the French Academy for the Year 1776, Against the Solar Spots Being Excavations in the Luminous Matter of the Sun, Together With a Short Examination of the Views Entertained by Him Upon that Subject,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,73 (1783), 144–168.

II. Secondary Literature. For a brief biographical sketch of Wilson’s life, see the article by George Stronach in the Dictionary of National Biography, XXI, 545–546.

Good but brief accounts of Wilson’s theories can be found in Agnes M. Clerke, A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh-New York, 1886), and Robert Grant, History of Physical Astronomy From the Earliest Ages to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century (London, 1852).

Howard Plotkin

Alexander Wilson

views updated May 17 2018

Alexander Wilson

The 13-volume American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), Scottish-American ornithologist and poet, was the first great comprehensive descriptive and illustrated work on the birds of the eastern United States.

Alexander Wilson was born on July 6, 1766, in Paisley, Scotland, into a large, poor family. Apprenticed at the age of 13 in the weaving trade, he spent ten years as a weaver. He then began tramping about Scotland as a peddler and writing dialect poems, which he published in Poems (1790). Discouraged by poverty and by political persecution because of some satires he wrote, he emigrated to America in 1794.

Though entirely self-educated, Wilson supported himself as a teacher around Philadelphia. The turning point in his life came in 1802, when he took charge of a school at Gray's Ferry, near the home and gardens of William Bartram, the Philadelphia naturalist. Bartram helped channel Wilson's natural love of birds and the outdoors into systematic scientific endeavors. Wilson became convinced that no single work on American birds was free from defect, and he decided to produce a comprehensive illustrated work on the birds of the eastern United States.

Wilson spent 10 years gathering specimens and materials for his classic work, American Ornithology; the first seven volumes were published in 1808-1813, the others posthumously. In 1807 he secured a position as assistant editor with a Philadelphia publisher, which relieved him of the drudgery of teaching and undoubtedly made possible the completion of his massive work. In 1808, to assure publication of his masterpiece, Wilson traveled all over the eastern United States in search of 250 subscribers.

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.

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.

Further Reading

The best biography of Wilson is Robert Cantwell, Alexander Wilson, Naturalist and Pioneer (1961), which replaces the older work by James S. Wilson, Alexander Wilson, Poet-Naturalist (1906). Some general background can be found in William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834; rev. ed. 1965).

Additional Sources

Wilson, Alexander, The life and letters of Alexander Wilson, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983. □

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