William John Swainson

Another man of science with many other specialties is William John Swainson. He was a British entomologist, conchologist, malacologist, and an artist. Recently, his 224th birthday was celebrated on a Google Doodle on the 8th of October. He is most known for his colorful drawings of nature which he himself experienced during his life which he spent on research.

Early Life and Background

He was the oldest son of John Timothy Swainson. He was born in St. Mary Newington, London, specifically at the Dover Place. His father had been a fellow of the Linnean Society, and this may have influenced William’s personal interest in natural history. Originally, his father’s family came from Lancashire and his father and grandfather had their positions in Her Majesty’s Customs. Later on, his father became one of the Collectors at Liverpool. Although his mother’s name isn’t known, another relative worth mentioning is his cousin Isaac Swainson who was an amateur botanist.


William’s formal education was actually impeded because he had a speech difficulty, but despite this he got his education at Lancaster Grammar School. Because of this, he first chose to join the Liverpool Customs when he was 15 where he was a junior clerk. After that, he became a member of the Army Commissariat, and during that time he was even able to tour Sicily and Malta.

Research, Works, and Explorations

Having family members with the same interest for natural history, William Swainson found his passion in becoming an explorer and documenter of nature. In 1806, Swainson went to accompany Henry Koster, a British explorer who was then going to Brazil. Koster stayed in Brazil and became famous for his published book called Travels in Brazil. During Swainson’s time there, he also had the chance to meet Dr. GrigoriIvanovitch Langsdorff who was one of the consul generals of Russia who had also been exploring Brazil when Swainson was there.

Although he did not spend much time there because of the revolution, he went back to the UK with more than 20,000 insect samples, 1,200 plant species, 760 different bird skins, and more than a hundred drawings of many different fish species for which he became known for. His other explorations happened in Italy and Greece which allowed him to further his knowledge and specimen collection on fish and flowers of the Mediterranean.

Swainson is best known for his illustrations although he also came up with the scientific, as well as common names, of many different species of both plants and animals. William Elford Leach, one of Swainson’s friends, was the head of the British Museum’s zoology department and he encouraged Swainson to make use of lithography especially for his book called Zoological Illustrations. Because of this, Swainson is actually the very first naturalist and illustrator to have a book which used lithography for the illustration purposes.

The illustrations in the book came in monochrome prints, and they were later on hand-colored based on the pattern plates which Swainson himself made. This publication of his received book orders and it was what led him to become a noted name as a man of science.

He was a traveler and wherever he went he took the opportunity to observe the flora and fauna by taking specimen or drawing them. In the year 1839, he became a member of the New Zealand Company as well as the Church of England committee. There, he bought property in form of land in Wellington. It was at this time that he gave up his career in scientific literature and documentation. But this wasn’t the end of his life involved in the exposure to the scientific world. He was the very first Fellow of the Royal Society who moved to New Zealand. A few years later, he became an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania.

Come year 1851, he went to Sydney, Australia where he became the Botanical Surveyor of the Victoria Government a year later. He had been invited by Charles La Trobe who was Lieutenant-Governor there to help with their study of local trees. In 1852, not shortly after the study had begun, he was able to finish his report where he was able to come up with a total of more than 1,500 species and different varieties of eucalyptus. During that time he was also able to identify so many species of the Casuarina genus of trees that he no longer had names for them.

While it is noted that Swainson had an expertise for zoology, his untrained eye for botany was not exactly well-praised. Botanist William Jackson Hooker wrote to Baron Sir Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller who was also a noted botanist saying that Swainson’s botanical work—despite his being a good zoologist–is a “series of trash and nonsense.” Despite his not so well-received efforts for botany, his contributions for early zoological research were still given credit.

Personal Life and Latter Years

Like Victorian scientists of his age, Swainson himself was a member of many different learned societies. These included the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society as previously mentioned.

He had two wives, the first one being Mary Parkes whom he married in 1823. They had four sons and one daughter. Mary died in 1835. Five years later, Swainson remarried. The second marriage was in 1840 and this was to Ann Grasby. The couple moved to New Zealand afterwards.

Despite not being positively recognized for his botanical efforts, his love for botany could not be suppressed, and he even studied the plants in Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales before his return to New Zealand in 1854 where he lived with his family in the Hutt at Fern Grove. His activities in New Zealand were mostly forestry-related endeavors although he had also been engaged in activities such as property management as well as having more publications related to natural history. On December 6, 1855 at the age of 66, William John Swainson died in their home at Fern Grove.