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Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson (July 6, 1766 - August 23, 1813) was an American ornithologist, naturalist and illustrator.

Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland , the son of an illiterate distiller. In 1779 he was apprenticed as a weaver. His main interest at this time was in writing poetry, and his poems commenting on the unfair treatment of the weavers by their employers got him into trouble with the authorities.

In May 1794 Wilson left Scotland with his nephew to find a better life in America. Wilson obtained employment as a schoolteacher in Milestown, near Philadelphia. In 1801 he left Milestown and found a new teaching post in Gray’s Ferry, Pennsylvania. It was here that he met the famous naturalist William Bartram who developed Wilson’s interest in ornithology. In 1802 Wilson decided to publish a book illustrating all the North American birds. With this in mind he travelled widely, watching and painting birds and collecting subscribers for his book. The result was the nine-volume American Ornithology (1808-1814), illustrating 268 species of birds, 26 of which had not previously been described. He died during the writing of the ninth volume, which was completed and published after his death by his friend George Ord.

Wilson is now regarded as the greatest American ornithologist prior to Audubon. It was his meeting with Audubon in Louisville in 1810 which probably inspired the younger man to produce a book of his own bird illustrations.