Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Burtt, Edward H., Jr. & Jr. Belknap: Harvard Univ. 2013. 450p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780674072558. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780674073739. NAT HIST
A Scottish emigré, Alexander Wilson (1766–1813) became the preeminent ornithologist of early America. His systematic approach to the study of birds and his nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–14) greatly influenced John James Audubon, in whose shadow Wilson has since remained. In the first Wilson biography since The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson, edited by Clark Hunter (1983), Burtt (zoology, Ohio Wesleyan Univ.) and Davis (Professor Emeritus, Boston Univ.) describe Wilson's mentoring by such prominent figures as Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, William Bartram, and the Philadelphia family of artists, the Peales. While more than half of Hunter's text was made up of Wilson's letters, unannotated, Burtt and Davis have included finely reproduced images of Wilson's "pencil sketches, pen and ink drawings, and draft paintings," as well as final published images (more than 140 in color) for his magnum opus and have offered substantial annotation. Their text is expert and engaging, especially in the over 200-page chapter on "Illustrating American Ornithology." Wilson and Audubon met and had a prickly relationship. The authors show that it is Wilson, rather than Audubon, who deserves the sobriquet of the father of American ornithology. Two appendixes have biographical sketches of Wilson's predecessors and contemporaries.
VERDICT This excellent work is highly recommended for birders and for readers who appreciate American art or natural history.

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