Alexander Wilson

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ALEXANDER WILSON, Scottish-American (1766-1813)


Born in Scotland, Alexander Wilson came to America as a young man seeking a better work life; he found employment as a school teacher near Philadelphia. The famous American naturalist William Bartram met Wilson and inspired his interest in ornithology. Wilsons work, American Ornithology or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States was first published in 1808-14, with a second printing in 1829. "This is the first truly great American ornithology and also the first truly outstanding American color plate book of any type; absolutely basic as a collector's' item." (Whitman Bennett, American Color Plate Books).

During a chance meeting in 1810 in Louisville, Kentucky Wilson met Audubon and tried to sign him up as a subscriber to his Ornithology. The great rivalry that ensued between John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson is one of the most interesting chapters of American natural history. The rivalry likely inspired each to greater accomplishment. Audubon did indeed subscribe and his set of Wilsons Ornithology is now in the collection at Audubon State Park in Henderson Kentucky. One may see the commentary in the margins in Audubon's own hand commenting on Wilson's work where ever he thought there was a scientific or artistic difference.

Wilson's plates depicted 320 figures of 262 species, including 39 that were entirely new and 23 that were for the first time described sufficiently to distinguish them from European species with which they had been confused. Wilson's work has great charm that combines clean graphic form with wonderful original color. A supplement was published to finish the work interrupted by Wilson's death in 1813. Charles Lucien Bonaparte and Titian Ramsey Peale published the last volume between 1825 and 1833.