Celebrating the life and work of an unsung Scottish hero

Published: 5 June 2013

The life and work of a Scottish scientist, artist, poet and political radical, little known in his native land, will be celebrated in a new exhibition.

The life and work of a Scottish scientist, artist, poet and political radical, renowned in the US art and scientific communities, but little known in his native land, will be celebrated by the University of Glasgow.

Alexander Wilson, born in Paisley in 1766, is a towering figure in the history of the natural sciences. Heralded as the founder of the scientific study of birds, and of biodiversity recording, he has several bird species and a scientific society, The Wilson Ornithological Society, named after him.  

His profile in Scotland, however, is much lower and most people who pass his statue in Paisley are likely to know next to nothing about him.

Pat Monaghan, Regius Professor  of Zoology at the University of Glasgow, hopes this will change with the help of an upcoming exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of Wilson’s death, opening on 14 June.

Prof Monaghan said: “Wilson was the first to describe birds in a scientifically accurate way. Although he had relatively little formal education, he rose to become one of the key figures in the scientific community of the United States. His beautifully illustrated, nine-volume collection American Ornithology, for which he did all the work himself, has been updated, but never superseded.

“A contemporary of Robert Burns, he left Scotland for the US, disillusioned after being imprisoned for his radical poetry which attacked the exploitation of mill workers.

“There is even some debate over whether the well-known American bird artist John James Audubon, whose book The Birds of America now sells for millions of pounds, plagiarised some of Wilson’s work.  

“Wilson was a pioneer – and real renaissance figure. Scientist, poet, artist and social commentator, he made long and arduous journeys both metaphorical and physical: Truly a self-made man.”

Maggie Reilly, Curator of the Hunterian Zoology Museum, where the exhibition will be held, said: “It is time that there was more recognition of this unsung local hero, and this year’s 200th anniversary of his death provides an opportunity to bring him to public attention. He is an important figure in so many ways, and deserves to have his contribution and legacy recognised by a wider audience, and particularly in Scotland.”

Wilson left Scotland in 1794 after his radical political incurred the wrath of the authorities and landed him in jail for a short period.

He immigrated to America where he travelled extensively, mostly alone and on foot, around the still dangerous country. He recorded the different species of birds he encountered through notes, paintings and drawings that he published in his books, which were financed by subscribers. Among the early subscribers was Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, also a naturalist.

The Hunterian Zoology Museum will host an evening of short lectures about Wilson’s life and work in the Graham Kerr Building on 14 June, featuring Wilson biographer Jed Burtt. This event is free and open to the public but must be booked through the Glasgow Science Festival website



The event will also launch an exhibition of Wilson’s life, painting, collecting and writing in the Hunterian Zoology Museum. Illustrations from the first edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology will be on show, plus examples of his writing and poetry. A selection of ornithological research at Glasgow University will also be described. The exhibition will run until September 13th.

The Wilson celebrations are supported financially by the Scottish Ornithologists’Club, The British Ecological Society:Festival of Ecology and the Glasgow Natural History Society and are part of the Glasgow Science Festival.

For more information contact Stuart Forsyth in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 4831 or email stuart.forsyth@glasgow.ac.uk

First published: 5 June 2013

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