200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 89: “Setting the Stage ”

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bird illustrations from Wilson's American Orthithology
Two of the lavishly illustrated plates from Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology.

Setting the Stage

Alexander Wilson was a member of the Academy for only about a year before his premature death in 1813, but his influence on the infant institution was profound because of what he had accomplished during his lifetime. Wilson’s masterwork, American Ornithology, is a nine-volume set that was published from 1808 to 1814. (The last volume was published posthumously by Wilson’s friend and Academy member George Ord.) Filled with engaging accounts and lavishly illustrated with colorful plates featuring 320 birds, American Ornithology was the most ambitious publication undertaken in the United States at that time period.

Wilson’s work portrayed American nature in a new and compelling way. It prompted several European naturalists, including Thomas Nuttall, C. S. Rafinesque, and William Maclure, to leave their homelands for Philadelphia and the Academy. It also set a new standard for American publications in natural history, one that Academy members would emulate in the following decades.

During your next visit to the Academy, visit the second floor across from the Ewell Sale Stewart Library to see a statue of Alexander Wilson created by Alexander Milne Calder, the sculptor who created the William Penn statue on City Hall.

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