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William John Swainson
Swainson William 1789-1855.jpg
Born (1789-10-08)8 October 1789
St Mary Newington, London, United Kingdom
Died 6 December 1855(1855-12-06) (aged 66)
Fern Grove, Hutt Valley, New Zealand
Citizenship United Kingdom
Known for Prolific illustrative works of natural history. Noted Quinarian.
Scientific career
Fields Ornithology, malacology, conchology, entomology, natural history
Notable students Sir Walter Buller
Author abbrev. (botany) Swainson
Emigrated to New Zealand in 1841
Zoological Illustrations Volume III Series 2 129
In this Zoological Illustrations lithograph Swainson depicted Urania sloanus, a now extinct species

William John Swainson FLS, FRS (8 October 1789 – 6 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 the Second (1756–1824), an original fellow of the Linnean Society. He was cousin of the amateur botanist Isaac Swainson. 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. He joined the Army Commissariat and toured Malta and Sicily He studied the ichthyology of western Sicily and in 1815, 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 1806 he accompanied the English explorer Henry Koster to Brazil. Koster had lived in Brazil for some years and had become famous for his book Travels in Brazil (1816). There he met Dr Grigori Ivanovitch Langsdorff, also an explorer of Brazil, and Russian Consul General. 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 fish, and about 760 bird skins.

Swainson was a member of learned societies, including the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society after his return from Brazil on 14 December 1820, and married his first wife Mary Parkes in 1823, with whom he had four sons (William John, George Frederick, Henry Gabriel and Edwin Newcombe) and a daughter (Mary Frederica). His wife Mary died in 1835.

Swainson remarried in 1840 to Ann Grasby, and emigrated to New Zealand in 1841. Two of their daughters were married in 1863: Edith Stanway Swainson married Arthur Halcombe, and Lucelle Frances Swainson married Richmond Beetham. Swainson was involved in property management and natural history-related publications from 1841 to 1855, and forestry-related investigations in Tasmania, New South Wales, and Victoria from 1851 to 1853. Swainson died at Fern Grove, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, on 6 December 1855.

Works on natural history

Swainson king parakeet
Image of a colour lithograph of a Moluccan king parrot produced by Swainson in the first volume of Zoological Illustrations

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 for the quality of his illustrations that he is best remembered. 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 reproduction and did not require an engraver. He began publishing many illustrated works, mostly serially. Subscribers received and paid for fascicles, 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 lithographs 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.

When in March 1822 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. Soon after his first marriage in 1823, Swainson visited Paris and formed friendships with Georges Cuvier, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and other eminent French naturalists. Upon his return to London, he was employed by Messrs. Longman as editor for the natural history departments of Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia. Swainson continued with his writing, the most influential of which was the second volume of Fauna Boreali-Americana (1831), which he wrote with John Richardson. This series (1829–1837) was the first illustrated zoological study to be funded in part by the British government. He also produced a second series of Zoological Illustrations (1832–33), three volumes of William Jardine's Naturalist's Library, and eleven volumes of Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia; he had signed a contract with the London publishers Longman to produce fourteen illustrated volumes of 300 pages in this series, one to be produced quarterly.


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. The Quinarian System fell out of favour, giving way to the rising popularity of the geographical theory of Hugh Edwin Strickland. Swainson was overworked by Dionysius Lardner, the publisher of the Cabinet Cyclopaedia and both Swainson and Macleay were derided for their support of the Quinarian system. Both proponents left Britain; Swainson emigrated to New Zealand and Macleay to Australia.

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, in 1840. He was apparently the first Fellow of the Royal Society to move to New Zealand. He was later made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania.

Together with most of his children from his first marriage, they sailed for New Zealand in the Jane, 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. He purchased 1,100 acres (445 ha) 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 Māori chief, Taringakuri, which led to years of uncertainty and threat. He was an officer in a militia against in the Māoris 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. Joseph Maiden described Swainson's efforts as

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. His standard botanical abbreviation is Swainson.

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.

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

See also

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