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Biographies of Roberts and Wilson

  • Blog Post by: Jim Williams
  • October 31, 2013 - 1:35 PM

Biographies of men who had much influence on birding here and in North America recently have been published. One details the life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, founder of the Bell Museum of Natural History, the other the life of Alexander Wilson, a Scot recognized by many as the founder of American Ornithology.

Roberts, a medical doctor, was born in 1858, and came to the city as a boy. He was a boy interested in birds. His lifelong interest was recorded in journals that eventually became the basis for the two-volume set “Birds of Minnesota.” It was and remains an essential tool for understanding birds here.

Roberts was here when Passenger Pigeons roosted in city oak trees. He taught the University of Minnesota’s first ornithology class. He and his students rode by streetcar from campus to Lake Harriet for birding fieldwork.

The author of the Roberts book, Sue Leaf, skillfully recreates his time and place, his contributions to ornithology, his work as a physician, and as the force that created our Bell Museum.  

The book takes takes us on a unique history trip. It covers birds, medicine, and the development of Minneapolis as a city, with Roberts as our guide.

The book is titled “A Love Affair with Birds.” It’s the most readable biography/history book I’ve read in a long time. The University of Minnesota Press published the book.

Wilson is the man for whom Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Plover, and Wilson’s Storm-petrel are named. Contrary to what many people believe, it was he, not John James Audubon, who earned recognition as father of ornithology in the U.S.

Wilson expressed his interest in and passion for birds through an extraordinary talent as an artist. The book contains reproductions of almost all of his work with North American birds. He was unusual for his time because he kept notes of his observations. The book quotes from these, offering a sharply focused look at a naturalist’s world more than 200 years ago.

Wilson arrived in Philadelphia in 1794. He traveled widely throughout the country as it existed then, sketching and painting as he went.

Audubon arrived in the country in 1803. He too traveled widely in search of birds to paint. His famous work, including 700 species of birds, was published in two volumes between 1827 and 1839. He did not include the knowledgeable text that made Wilson’s work so valuable. But Audubon’s books, showing paintings of birds life-size, has become perhaps the most valuable of all early work on North American birds.

Audubon sought subscriptions for his book, traveling to England with paintings to seek support. He was successful. Wilson also traveled to find subscribers who would finance printing of his work. He was less successful, but the first volume of “American Ornithology” was published in 1808, an issue of 250 copies.

Wilson and Audubon met in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1810. Audubon was working on his paintings, traveling to find birds. Wilson was seeking subscriptions for his work. He spent part of two days with Audubon, before leaving almost securing Audubon’s signature as a subscriber. Audubon’s business partner at that time discouraged Audubon from signing, and he did not.

That was the first edition of an intended eight. Wilson was working on the final volume at the time of his death in 1813. His work was the first scientific publication in this country.

The book is titled “Alexander Wilson, The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology.” It was written by Edward H. Burtt Jr., and William E. Davis Jr., published by Harvard University Press.

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