Swainson, William, 1789-1855

Alternative names
Birth 1789-10-08
Death 1855-12-06

Biographical notes:

Epithet: naturalist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000679.0x0001a6

Swainson, a notable naturalist, was also a skilled botanical draughtsman and a competent water color artist.

From the guide to the Birds of North America, Circa 1822-1824, (American Philosophical Society)

William Swainson (1789-1855) was born in Liverpool. He joined H.M. Customs in 1803 and transferred to the Commissariat of the Mediterranean Army in 1806. This gave him the opportunity to travel and study natural history in Malta, Italy and Sicily. He retired at half pay in 1815 when he was 26 years old.

In the next year he went to Brazil on an expedition to collect plants and animals, especially birds, returning in 1818. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society (1820) and a Fellow of the Linnean Society. After 1818, he learned lithography and produced many drawings of animals. He was engaged as a professional writer and wrote many populat books and papers on shells, birds and other animals. He was one of the chief exponents advocating a peculiar sustem of classification called the Quinary System.

In 1840 he emigrated to New Zealand, disillusioned by the lack of acceptance of his theories of systematics, the failure to obtain a post at the British Museum and saddened by the death of his first wife (Mary Parkes) in 1835. He left with his second wife Ann Grasby and four of his five children. He purchased 1100 acres of land in the Hutt Valley from the New Zealand Company.

From the guide to the Papers of William Swainson, [1810-1840], (University of Cambridge: Museum of Zoology)


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  • Science and technology
  • Ornithology
  • Natural history


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  • Stamford, Lincolnshire (as recorded)
  • Clifton-on-Teme, Worcestershire (as recorded)
  • Long Melford, Suffolk (as recorded)
  • London, England (as recorded)