William John Swainson

William John Swainson

William John Swainson FLS, FRS (8 October 17896 December 1855), was an English ornithologist, malacologist, conchologist, entomologist and artist.


Swainson was born in Dover Place, St. Mary Newington, London, the eldest son of John Timothy Swainson, an original fellow of the Linnean Society. [http://www.tmbl.gu.se/libdb/taxon/personetymol/petymol.l.html Biographical Etymology of Marine Organism Names. L] ] He was cousin of the amateur botanist Isaac Swainson. Etymologisches Worterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen by H. Genaust. Review by Paul A. Fryxell "Taxon", Vol. 38(2), 245-246 (1989). doi:10.2307/1220844 ] His father's family originated in Lancashire, and both grandfather and father held high posts in Her Majesty's Customs, the father becoming Collector at Liverpool.

William, whose formal education was curtailed because of an impediment in his speech, joined the Liverpool Customs as a junior clerk at the age of 14. "William Swainson F.R.S, F.L.S., Naturalist and Artist: Diaries 1808-1838:Sicily, Malta, Greece, Italy and Brazil." G.M. Swainson, Palmerston, NZ 1989.] He joined the Army Commissariat and toured Malta and Sicily [http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/1966/S/SwainsonWilliam17891855/en 'SWAINSON, William, 1789-1855', In: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 26-Sep-2006] ] ] He studied the ichthyology of western Sicily and in 1815, he was forced by ill health to return to England where he subsequently retired on half pay. William followed in his father's footsteps to become a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1815. ]

In 1816 he went with the explorer Henry Koster to Brazil. Henry Koster had travelled to Brazil once before and became famous for his book "Travels in Brazil". [http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/chronob/SWAI1789.htm Some Biogeographers, Evolutionists and Ecologists-Chrono-Biographical Sketches: Swainson, William (England-New Zealand 1789-1855)] ] There he met Dr Grigori Ivanovitch Langsdorff, a Consul General of Russia and explorer of Brazil. They did not spend a long time on shore because of a revolution, but Swainson returned to England in 1818 in his words “a bee loaded with honey”, with a collection of over 20,000 insects, 1,200 species of plants, drawings of 120 species of fishes, and about 760 bird skins.

As with many Victorian scientists, Swainson was also a member of many learned societies, including the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh. He was elected a fellow to the Royal Society after his return from Brazil on 14 December 1820, [http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/DServe/dserve.exe?dsqIni=Dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqCmd=Show.tcl&dsqDb=Catalog&dsqSearch=(PersonCode='NA1746') Election of William Swainson as a Fellow of the Royal Society] ] ] and married his first wife Mary Parkes in 1823, with whom he had four sons and a daughter. Mary died in 1835.

Swainson re-married in 1840 to Ann Grasby, emigrated to New Zealand in 1841. He was involved in property management and natural history-related publications from 1841-1855, and forestry-related investigations in Tasmania, New South Wales, and Victoria (Australia) 1851-1853.Swainson died at Fern Grove, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, on 7 December 1855.

Works on natural history

Swainson was at times quite critical of the works of others, and later in life others in turn became quite critical of him.

Apart from the common and scientific names of many species, it is the quality of his illustrations that he is best remembered for. His friend William Elford Leach, head of zoology at the British Museum encouraged him to experiment with lithography for his book "Zoological Illustrations" (1820-23). Swainson became the first illustrator and naturalist to use lithography, which was a relatively cheap means of production and did not require an engraver. He began publishing many illustrated works, mostly serially. Subscribers received and paid for small sections of the books as they came out, so that the cash flow was constant and could be reinvested in the preparation of subsequent parts. As book orders arrived, the monochrome lithography prints were hand-coloured, according to colour reference images, known as ‘pattern plates’, which were produced by Swainson himself. It was his early adoption of this new technology and his natural skill of illustration that in large part led to his fame. William Swainson: Naturalist, author and illustrator by David M Knight. "Archives of Natural History" (1986) 13:275-290]

When Leach was forced to resign from the British Museum due to ill health, Swainson applied to replace him, but the post was given to John George Children. Swainson continued with his writing, the most influential of which was the second volume of "Fauna Boreali-Americana" (1831) which he co-authored with John Richardson. This series (1829-1837) was the first illustrated zoological study to be in-part funded by the British government. [http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/audubon/audubon9.html Contemporaries and rivals of Audubon] ] He also produced a second series of "Zoological Illustrations" (1832-33), three volumes of Jardine's "Naturalist's Library", and eleven volumes of Lardner's "Cabinet Cyclopedia"; he had signed a contract with Longman to produce fourteen illustrated volumes of 300 pages in this series, one to be produced quarterly.

Classification of natural history

In 1819 William Sharp MacLeay had published his ideas of the Quinarian system of biological classification, and Swainson soon became a noted and outspoken proponent. [http://rjohara.net/cv/1991-bp Representations of the Natural System in the Nineteenth Century . O'Hara, Robert J. 1991. Biology and Philosophy, 6: 255-274. Reprinted 1996 as pp. 164-183 in: Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science (B.S. Baigrie, ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press] ] The Quinarian System later fell out of favour in favour of the mapmaking theory of Hugh Edwin Strickland. Swainson was overworked by Lardner, [http://faculty.ed.uiuc.edu/westbury/Paradigm/HIGH_CHU.PDF "High Church Science: William Swainson and William Kirby", by DM Knight ] ] and both Swainson and MacLeay became derided for their support of the Quinarian system. Both proponents left England; Swainson emigrated to New Zealand and MacLeay to Australia. [http://microecos.wordpress.com/2006/05/23/decimating-birds-episode-ii-namesakes Decimating Birds: Episode II - Namesakes] ] An American visiting Australasia in the 1850s heard to his surprise that both MacLeay and Swainson were living there, and imagined that they had been exiled to the Antipodes

'for the great crime of burdening zoology with a false though much laboured theory which has thrown so much confusion into the subject of its classification and philosophical study'. [http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Environment/NHR/swainson.html Swainson's What?] ] D. Knight (1986) "Ordering the World: A History of Classifying Man". Burnett Books. London. ]

New Zealand estate

In 1839 he became a member of the committee of the New Zealand Company and of the Church of England committee for the appointment of a bishop to New Zealand, bought land in Wellington, and gave up scientific literary work. He married his second wife Anne Grasby (housekeeper) in 1840. [http://www.zoonomen.net/bio/bios.html Biographies of Zoologists] ] He was apparently the first Fellow of the Royal Society to move to New Zealand. [http://www.rsnz.org/publish/nzjb/1980/45.pdf See note on correspondence from Cockayne to Halcombe Mrs Blanche Stuart Halcombe, granddaughter of William Swainson] ] He was later made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania.R.M. Barker & W.R. Barker (1990), 'Botanical Contributions Overlooked...' in 'History of Systematic Botany in Australasia' ed: P.S. Short, ASBS] [http://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/swainson-william.html Australian National Botanical Gardens Biography: William Swainson (1789-1855)] ]

Together with most of his children from his first marriage, they sailed for New Zealand in the "Jane", [http://www.myers.orcon.net.nz/swainson.html Life and descendants of William Swainson] ] reaching Wellington, in the summer of 1841. The trip was not without incident, as the boat suffered damage en route and was in such a poor state that there was legal action on arrival. [http://www.angelfire.com/az/nzgenweb/passJKL.html Passenger Lists into Wellington (Port Nicholson)] ] [http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~ourstuff/Jane.htm Jane 1841 Passenger List] ] He purchased convert|1100|acre|km2|0 in the Hutt Valley from the New Zealand Company, and established his estate of "Hawkshead". Not coincidentally, this name was shared by an ancestral home in Hawkshead, Lancashire of the Swainson family, which was the birthplace of Isaac Swainson. After a few months, this estate was claimed by a Maori chief Taringakuri, which led to years of uncertainty and threat. He was an officer in a militia against in the Maoris in 1846. During these times he was largely dependent on his half pay.

Botanical studies in Australia

In 1851 Swainson sailed to Sydney and he took the post of Botanical Surveyor in 1852 with the Victoria Government, after being invited by the Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe to study local trees. He finished his report in 1853 in which he claimed a grand total of 1520 species and varieties of Eucalyptidae. He identified so many species of Casuarina that he ran out of names for them. While having quite some expertise in zoology, his untrained foray into botany was not well received. William Jackson Hooker wrote to Ferdinand von Mueller:

In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first rate naturalist (though with many eccentricities) and of a very first-rate Natural History artist and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of Botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.
Joseph Maiden described Swainson's efforts as
an exhibition of reckless species-making that, as far as I know stands unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature.

He had studied the flora of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania before his return to New Zealand in 1854 to live at Fern Grove in the Hutt, where he died the following year. In 1856, a poem was written by the New Zealand poet William Golder in his memory. [http://www.nzetc.org/projects/golder/GolNZS/poemGolNZS016.html "Stanzas To the Memory of Wm. Swainson, Esq., F.R.S. &c., Departed hence, December 7, 1855". William Golder: The New Zealand Survey (Wellington: J. Stoddard and Co. 1867), pp. 137-43] ]

Common confusions regarding William Swainson

* William Swainson is frequently credited with having the genus "Swainsona" named after him, and specifically Sturt's Desert Pea the official floral emblem of South Australia. Although he did botanical work in this region, Swainsona is named after his cousin Isaac Swainson (1746-1812), who never travelled to this region.
* William Swainson is frequently confused with William Swainson (lawyer) (1809-1884). They are almost certainly related, both travelled to New Zealand in 1841 and ultimately died there, and both published books. However, the latter had a legal background, was the second Attorney-General of the Crown Colony of New Zealand, and his publications were limited to books concerning Auckland and the early colonization of New Zealand.

Common names of species named after William Swainson

Many birds retain a common name after Swainson, several of which were named by famous naturalists of the period. Many species or subspecies retain his name, although many of his own species were later discredited or merged with others.
*John James Audubon named Swainson's Warbler "Limnothlypis swainsonii"
*Charles Lucien Bonaparte named Swainson's Hawk "Buteo swainsoni"
*Thomas Nuttall named Swainson's Thrush "Catharus ustulatus"
*Swainson's Francolin "Francolinus swainsonii"
*Swainson's Sparrow "Passer swainsonii"
*Swainson's Antcatcher "Myrmeciza longipes"
*Swainson's Fire-eye "Pyriglena atra"
*Swainson's Flycatcher "Myiarchus swainsoni"
*Swainson's Toucan "Ramphastos swainsonii"


Partial bibilography of William Swainson

Many of these works were reprinted, or present in serial publication.
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=bh4OAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Zoological+illustrations&as_brr=1&ei=XrRlR42xOoOCsgPoz4yuCA Swainson, W. 1820. Zoological illustrations, Baldwin, Cradock, & Joy , London.]

*Swainson, W. 1824. An inquiry into the natural affinities of the Lanidae or shrikes; preceded by some observations on the present state of ornithology in this country. Zool. J. 1(Art. 42): 289- 307.
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=nV8FAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA84&dq=The+characters+and+descriptions+of+several+birds+belonging+to+the+genus+Thamnophilus&as_brr=1&ei=QLNlR-2XDKDktQOmuImrAw Swainson, W. 1825. The characters and descriptions of several birds belonging to the genus Thamnophilus. Zool. J. 2(Art. 11): 84-93. 1826.]

*Swainson, W. 1827. A synopsis of the birds discovered in Mexico by W. Bullock, F. L. S., and H. S., Mr. William Bullock. Philos. Mag. (New Series) 1: 364-369, 433-442.

*Swainson, W. 1827. On the tyrant shrikes of America. Q. J. Sci. Lit. Arts. Inst. 20 (Art. 40): 267-285.

*Swainson, W. 1831-1832 On several groups and forms in ornithology, not hitherto defined. Zool. J. 3(Art. 15): 158-175; 343-363.

*Swainson, W., & J. Richardson: 1831. Fauna boreali-Americana: part second, the birds, John Murray, London.
* [http://books.google.com/books?vid=0cGlcsRGkez7Hv6BKXfzKmD&id=3cwQAAAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA92&lpg=RA1-PA92&dq=william+swainson&ie=ISO-8859-1 Swainson W. 1832-1833. Zoological illustrations, Second Ser., Vol. 2. London, Baldwin, Cradrock, and R. Havell.]
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=3cwQAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Zoological+illustrations&ei=WphhSKj3MoHKigGdkLXzBQ Swainson, W. 1832. Zoological illustrations. Second Ser., Vol. 3. London, Baldwin, Cradrock, and R. Havell.]
* [http://www.archive.org/download/preliminarydisco00swaiiala/preliminarydisco00swaiiala.pdf Swainson, W.: 1834. A preliminary discourse on the study of natural history, Longmans, London.]
* [http://books.google.com/books?vid=OCLC12335587&id=0eW-_B8V6IQC&printsec=titlepage&dq=william+swainson Swainson, W., 1835. The elements of modern conchology briefly and plainly stated, for the use of students and travelers. Baldwin and Cracock. London.]
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k97034t Swainson, W. 1835. A Treatise on the Geography and Classification of Animals. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Greene and Longman, and John Taylor, London.]

*Swainson, W. 1835. On the Natural History and Classification of Quadrupeds.
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k99315v Swainson, W. 1836. On the natural history and classification of birds. Vol 1. Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, London.]
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k993166 Swainson, W. 1836. On the natural history and classification of birds. Vol 2. Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, London.]

* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k99317j Swainson W. 1837. The natural history of the birds of Western Africa. Vol. VII of Jardine's Naturalist's Library.]
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k99318w Swainson W. 1837. The natural history of the birds of Western Africa. Vol. VIII of Jardine's Naturalist's Library.]
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=2Pc4AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA1&dq=The+natural+history+and+classification+of+fishes,+amphibians,+%26+reptiles,+or+monocardian+animals&ei=umkRR-XmJ4PupwKmtqnMBg&ie=ISO-8859-1 Swainson, W. 1838. The natural history and classification of fishes, amphibians, & reptiles, or monocardian animals. A. Spottiswoode, London. Nat. Hist. & Class. i-vi + 1-368]

*Swainson, W. 1838. Animals in menageries. Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia. London, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, Longman, and J. Taylor.
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k98983r Swainson, W. 1840. A treatise on malacology; or the natural classification of shells and shellfish. Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia. London.]

*Swainson, W. 1840. Taxidermy with the Biography of Zoologists Longman, London.
* [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k97204f Swainson, W. 1841. Exotic Conchology, Henry G Bohn, London.]

* [Swainson (William) Ornithological Drawings] , first edition, 62 hand-coloured lithograph plates, no title or text as issued. 8vo, [1834-36] .
Second edition 1841. "A Selection of the Birds of Brazil and Mexico with 78 plates" Bohn, London.
* [http://books.google.com/books?vid=OCLC02126683&id=tuA7OcdpSFYC&pg=RA1-PR9&lpg=RA1-PR9&dq=william+swainson&ie=ISO-8859-1 Wallace H, Jameson W., Hooker, R W.J., Swainson, W. 1841. An Encyclopaedia of Geography. Thomas G. Bradford (ed). Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard.]

*Swainson, W. 1843. Flycatchers. Ornithology. Volume XIII, Jardine's Naturalist's Library [xvi] , t.e.g. Edinburgh: W. H. Lizars.
* [http://books.google.com/books?vid=OCLC12580483&id=kgoAAAAAQAAJ&pg=RA1-PA1&lpg=RA1-PA1&dq=william+swainson&ie=ISO-8859-1 Swainson W. Ornithology Birds of Western Africa- Part 1 1862. The Naturalists Library, W Jardine (ed) Vol XI.] (A reprint of 1837)

Other references

*An excellent set of references of Swainson's life, and his work in malachology and conchology is maintained by "The American Malacological Society" under their review : 2,400 Years of Malacology (3rd edition) http://www.malacological.org/pdfs/2400years06/Biblio-Bio-p-s.pdf

*Calhoun, J. (2007). "John Abbot's butterfly drawings for William Swainson, including general comments about Abbot's artistic methods and written observations." Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society. 61:1-20.
*Natusch, S. & G. Swainson. (1987). "William Swainson, F.R.S., F.L.S. &c: anatomy of a nineteenth-century naturalist." S. Natusch, Wellington, New Zealand. 184pp.

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