William John Swainson

William John Swainson FLS, FRS (8 October 1789 – 6 December 1855[1]), was an English ornithologist, malacologist, conchologist, entomologist and artist.

William J. Swainson
Swainson William 1789-1855
Born8 October 1789
St Mary Newington, London, United Kingdom
Died6 December 1855 (aged 66)
Fern Grove, Hutt Valley, New Zealand
ResidenceUnited Kingdom New Zealand
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
Known forProlific illustrative works of natural history. Noted Quinarian.
Scientific career
FieldsOrnithology, malacology, conchology, entomology, natural history
Notable studentsSir 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


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.[2] He was cousin of the amateur botanist Isaac Swainson.[3] 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.[4] He joined the Army Commissariat and toured Malta and Sicily[4][5] 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.[4]

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).[6] 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.

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 of the Royal Society after his return from Brazil on 14 December 1820,[4][7] and married his first wife Mary Parkes in 1823,[5] 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. Their daughter, Edith Stanway Swainson, married Arthur Halcombe in 1863.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[9]


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.[12] The Quinarian System fell out of favour, giving way to the rising popularity of the geographical theory of Hugh Edwin Strickland.[12] Swainson was overworked by Dionysius Lardner, the publisher of the Cabinet Cyclopaedia[13] 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.[14] 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'.[15][16]

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.[5] He married his second wife, Anne Grasby, in 1840.[17] He was apparently the first Fellow of the Royal Society to move to New Zealand.[18] He was later made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania.[19][20]

Together with most of his children from his first marriage, they sailed for New Zealand in the Jane,[21] 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.[22][23] 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. 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.[19][20]

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.[19][20]

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.[5]

In 1856, a poem was written by the New Zealand poet William Golder in his memory.[24] His standard botanical abbreviation is Swainson.[25]

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.

Limnothlypis swainsoniiEMP04CB

Swainson's warbler

Buteo swainsoni edit

Swainson's hawk

Catharus ustulatus

Swainson's thrush

Ramphastos swainsonii -back -Buffalo Zoo-8a

Swainson's toucan

Partial bibliography

Many of these works were reprinted, or present in serial publication.


  1. ^ Boulger, George Simonds (1898). "Swainson, William (1789-1855)" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 55. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  2. ^ "Biographical Etymology of Marine Organism Names. L". Tmbl.gu.se. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  3. ^ Etymologisches Worterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen by H. Genaust. Review by Paul A. Fryxell Taxon, Vol. 38(2), 245-246 (1989). doi:10.2307/1220844
  4. ^ a b c d "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.
  5. ^ a b c d "'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 September 2006". Teara.govt.nz. 13 December 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  6. ^ "Some Biogeographers, Evolutionists and Ecologists; Chrono-Biographical Sketches: Swainson, William (UK-New Zealand 1789-1855)". Wku.edu. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  7. ^ "Election of William Swainson as a Fellow of the Royal Society". Royalsoc.ac.uk. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  8. ^ Ormsby, Mary Louise. "Edith Stanway Halcombe". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 23 April 2017.
  9. ^ a b William Swainson: Naturalist, author and illustrator by David M Knight. Archives of Natural History (1986) 13:275-290
  10. ^ "Obituary. William John Swainson". The Gentleman's Magazine: 532–533. May 1856.
  11. ^ "Contemporaries and rivals of Audubon". Sc.edu. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  12. ^ a b —Darwin (1859: 413). "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.)". University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  13. ^ "''High Church Science: William Swainson and William Kirby'', by DM Knight" (PDF). Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  14. ^ "Decimating Birds: Episode II - Namesakes". Microecos.wordpress.com. 23 May 2006. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  15. ^ "Swainson's What?". Chebucto.ns.ca. 19 June 2003. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  16. ^ D. Knight (1986) Ordering the World: A History of Classifying Man. Burnett Books. London.
  17. ^ "Biographies of Zoologists". Zoonomen.net. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  18. ^ "See note on correspondence from Cockayne to Halcombe Mrs Blanche Stuart Halcombe, granddaughter of William Swainson" (PDF). Rsnz.org. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 June 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  19. ^ a b c R.M. Barker & W.R. Barker (1990), 'Botanical Contributions Overlooked...' in 'History of Systematic Botany in Australasia' ed: P.S. Short, ASBS
  20. ^ a b c "Australian National Botanical Gardens Biography: William Swainson (1789-1855)". Anbg.gov.au. 13 November 2007. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  21. ^ "Life and descendants of William Swainson". Myers.orcon.net.nz. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  22. ^ "Passenger Lists into Wellington (Port Nicholson)". Angelfire.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  23. ^ "Jane 1841 Passenger List". Freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
  24. ^ Stanzas To the Memory of Wm. Swainson, Esq., F.R.S. &c., Departed hence, 7 December 1855. William Golder: The New Zealand Survey (Wellington: J. Stoddard and Co. 1867), pp. 137-43 Archived 9 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ "William Swainson at the International Plant Names Index". (IPNI. Retrieved 20 July 2009.

Further reading

  • A very complete set of references of Swainson's life, and his work in malacology and conchology is maintained by The American Malacological Society under their review : 2,400 Years of Malacology (3rd edition)
  • 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.
  • Morelle, Vivienne (2014) Settlers’ clearings. New Zealand History. https://viviennemorrell.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/settlers-clearings/

External links

"Swainson, William (1789-1855)" . Dictionary of National Biography. 1885–1900. (According to the DNB biography, Swainson's first marriage occurred in 1825; the marriage actually occurred on 25 September 1823 at St Mary's, Warwick.)


Ariosoma is a genus of marine congrid eels.

Black-backed woodpecker

The black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) also known as the Arctic three-toed woodpecker is a medium-sized woodpecker (23 cm (9.1 in) long) inhabiting the forests of North America.


Coliadinae, the sulphurs or yellows, are a subfamily of butterflies with about 300 described species.

There are 36 species in North America, where they range from Mexico to northern Canada. Males of most species are different from females, including, (for example, in the genera Colias and Gonepteryx) brilliant UV reflections which the females lack.


Gibberula is a genus of minute sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk or micromollusk in the family Cystiscidae, previously placed in the family Marginellidae, the margin shells or marginellids.(Note: Gastropod taxonomy has been in flux for many years. This is especially true currently, because of new research in molecular phylogeny. Because of all this ongoing change, different reliable sources can yield very different classifications, especially within certain poorly understood groups.)

The type species of the genus Gibberula Swainson, 1840 is G. zonata Swainson.

Other genus-group names are available for small shells resembling Gibberula. These include Granula Jousseaume, 1875 and Kogomea Habe, 1951. They are distinguished from Gibberula only on the basis of smaller size and other rather tenuous conchological differentiations.


Heliconiini is a tribe of butterflies in the subfamily Heliconiinae, also known as the passion-vine butterflies. This group has roughly 100 species and subspecies distributed primarily in the Neotropics.


Hyriidae is a taxonomic family of pearly freshwater mussels, aquatic bivalve molluscs in the order Unionida. This family is native to South America, Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea. Like all members of that order, they go through a larval stage that is parasitic on fish (see glochidium).

The classification recognized by Banarescu (1995) uses three subfamilies. This family contains eighteen genera.


Labrisomus is a genus of labrisomid blennies native to the western Atlantic ocean and the eastern Pacific Ocean.


Lagocephalus is a genus of fish in the family Tetraodontidae with a circumglobal distribution.


Myadestes is a genus of solitaires, medium-sized mostly insectivorous birds in the thrush family, Turdidae.

They are found in the Americas and Hawaiʻi, where several island species have become extinct.


The Nymphalinae are a subfamily of brush-footed butterflies (family Nymphalidae). Sometimes, the subfamilies Limenitidinae, and Biblidinae are included here as subordinate tribe(s), while the tribe Melitaeini is occasionally regarded as a distinct subfamily.


Petroica is a genus of Australasian robins, named due to their red and pink markings. They are not closely related to the European robin nor the American robin.

The genus was introduced by the English naturalist William John Swainson in 1829 with the Norfolk robin (Petroica multicolor) as the type species. The generic name combines the Ancient Greek petro- "rock" with oikos "home".Many species in Australia have a red breast and are known colloquially as "red robins" as distinct from the "yellow robins" of the genus Eopsaltria.

Pied-winged swallow

The pied-winged swallow (Hirundo leucosoma) is a species of bird in the family Hirundinidae. It has distinctive steel-blue upperparts with white wing patches. It is native to parts of West Africa.


The Pieridae are a large family of butterflies with about 76 genera containing about 1,100 species, mostly from tropical Africa and tropical Asia with some varieties in the more northern regions of North America. Most pierid butterflies are white, yellow, or orange in coloration, often with black spots. The pigments that give the distinct coloring to these butterflies are derived from waste products in the body and are a characteristic of this family.The name "butterfly" is believed to have originated from a member of this family, the brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni, which was called the "butter-coloured fly" by early British naturalists.The sexes usually differ, often in the pattern or number of the black markings.

The larvae (caterpillars) of a few of these species, such as Pieris brassicae and Pieris rapae, commonly seen in gardens, feed on brassicas, and are notorious agricultural pests.

Males of many species exhibit gregarious mud-puddling behavior when they may imbibe salts from moist soils.


Polyommatinae, the blues, are a subfamily of gossamer-winged butterflies (Lycaenidae). It was long used to assign taxa of unclear relationships, and its contents are in need of revision. Several genera might not even belong here.


The sharpbill (Oxyruncus cristatus) is a small passerine bird in the family Tityridae. Its range is from the mountainous areas of tropical South America and southern Central America (Panama and Costa Rica).

It inhabits the canopy of wet forest and feeds on fruit and some invertebrates. It has an orange erectile crest, black-spotted yellowish underparts and scaling on the head and neck. As its name implies, it has a straight, pointed beak, which gives its common name.

Sharpbills are most commonly found in tall dense forests but occasionally venture to the forest edge. Their diet consists of primarily of fruit, but they will also take insects, hanging upside down in from twigs to obtain insect larvae. They will also travel in mixed-species feeding flocks with ovenbirds, tanagers, woodpeckers and cotingas. The breeding system employed by this species is polygamous with closely grouped males displaying in from a lek. The nest of the sharpbill is built by the female and is a small cup built on a slender branch. Chicks are fed by regurgitation.

The genus Oxyruncus was erected by the Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck in 1820. The sharpbill was described in 1821 by the English naturalist William John Swainson under the binomial name Oxyrhuncus cristatus with an "h" inserted into the name of the genus. The word Oxyruncus is from the Ancient Greek oxus for "sharp" or "pointed" and rhunkhos "bill". The specific epithet is from the Latin cristatus for "crested" or "plumed".Molecular phylogenetic studies have shown that the sharpbill occupies a basal position in a clade containing the Tityridae. The sharpbill is sometimes placed in its own family Oxyruncidae.There are four subspecies:

O. c. frater (Sclater, PL & Salvin, 1868) – Costa Rica and west Panama

O. c. brooksi Bangs & Barbour, 1922 – east Panama

O. c. hypoglaucus (Salvin & Godman, 1883) – southeast Venezuela, the Guianas and north Brazil

O. c. cristatus Swainson, 1821 – southeast Brazil, east Paraguay and northeast Argentina

Smith's longspur

The Smith's longspur (Calcarius pictus) is a bird from the family Calcariidae, which also contains the other species of longspurs. A bird of open habitats, it breeds in northern Canada and Alaska, and winters in the southern United States. Primarily a ground-feeding seed-eater, it supplements its diet with insects in the summer.


Sturisoma is a genus of armored catfishes native to Central and South America.


Thalassoma is a genus of wrasses native to the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.


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