Alexander Wilson (ornithologist)

Alexander Wilson
Wilson Alexander 1766-1813.jpg
Alexander Wilson
BornJuly 6, 1766
Paisley, Scotland
DiedAugust 23, 1813(1813-08-23) (aged 47)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
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 imprisonment

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. The work was publicly burned, and Wilson was sentenced to imprisonment. After his release, Wilson emigrated to America.

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.[2] 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.


Wilson statue at Paisley Abbey

Wilson died on August 23, 1813. He was buried in Philadelphia at Gloria Dei Church cemetery.[3][4]

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.[5] Ord was buried not far away in the same cemetery.[5]