2013 is the 200th anniversary of Alexander Wilson’s death.
Born in Scotland in 1766, Wilson was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a weaver. He was also a poet, and some of his satirical works saw him running afoul of the law. At the age of 27, Wilson moved to Philadelphia, where he met William Bartram, the botanist and author generally considered to be America’s first native-born naturalist. Bartram fostered and encouraged the young man’s interest in birds, and in 1802 Wilson decided to publish a work illustrating all the birds of North America. This effort was distinguished by Wilson’s emphasis on observation of live birds in their natural habitats, rather than relying primarily on already-dead specimens and birds in captivity.
Nine volumes of Wilson’s American Ornithology were published from 1808-1814. Volume 9 was published posthumously by George Ord, one of Wilson’s friends and executor of his estate. Alexander Wilson died in August of 1813 at the age of 47, succumbing to an illness that set in after he swam into a river, fully clothed, to secure a bird specimen.
American Ornithology depicts 268 species, including many first described by Wilson. His admirers and peers worked to expand American Ornithology after Wilson’s death, issuing supplements and further editions in an effort to complete his goal to illustrate all the birds of North America.
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