Who Was Swainson?

Swainson was a naturalist and ornithologist born in London and was one of the original fellows in the Linnean Society. A speech impediment prevented him from completing his studies; however, it didn’t limit his passion for science. After his military service in the British Army during the occupation of Sicily, the light workload allowed him to travel some. He took advantage of those opportunities to study botany and zoology and, by age nineteen, he had written his first book. In 1816, he went to Brazil with explorer Henry Koster and then to other locations. He returned many years later with thousands of samples of insects, birds and fish.

Upon his return to England, he married and then devoted many years to writing voluminous amounts of material on both botany and zoology. As he wrote his book, Zoological Illustrations, his friend and director of zoology at the British Museum invited him to attempt his own illustrations. He became quite an accomplished artist, learning some techniques from John Audubon, and it was because of this encouragement that Swainson is known as much for his lithographs as for his writing. He produced several more books including another series of Zoological Illustrations and three volumes of Sir William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library. His support of the Quinarian system, an unpopular system of classification, caused him to be ostracized by many of his peers. In 1840, he married his second wife and moved to New Zealand. While there he had the chance to extensively study the native plants of Australia.

Many bird species were named after Swainson and have retained those common and scientific names today. Among the most well known are are the Swainson’s toucan Ramphastos swainsonii, Swainson’s hawk Buteo swainsoni and the Swainson’s warbler Limnothlypis swainsoni. Because of their personal and professional relationship, it was Audubon who named the warbler after him. The Swainson’s or blue mountain lory, Trichoglossus haematodus moluccanus, was named for his cousin, botanist Isaac Swainson.