Celebrating 24 Years on the Web
Find science on or your birthday

Today in Science History - Quickie Quiz
Who said: “I have no satisfaction in formulas unless I feel their arithmetical magnitude.”
more quiz questions >>
Thumbnail of John Wilson (source)
John Wilson
(1696 - 15 Jul 1751)

English botanist who was the first to attempt a systematic arrangement of the indigenous plants of Great Britain in the English language

John Wilson

Biography from The Gentleman's Magazine (1791)

LI. Anecdotes of John Wilson, a celebrated Botanist.
Mr. Urban,
Kendal, Aug. 18.


A SHORT life of the subject of the present essay may be found in Pulteney's History of Botany in England, vol II. p. 264; where we are informed, that the principal circumstances are borrowed from the British Topography. As this account is far from being correct, it is presumed that the following may be offered to the Gentleman's Magazine without farther apology.

Some Account of John Wilson, Author of the Synopsis of British Plants in Mr. Ray's Method.

Plate 1 from John Wilson's book, A Synopsis of British Plants, in Mr. Ray's Method.
Plate 1 from John Wilson's book A Synopsis of British Plants, in Mr. Ray's Method. (source)

JOHN WILSON, the first who attempted a systematic arrangement of the indigenous plants of Great Britain in the English language, was born in Longsleddal, near Kendal, in Westmoreland, some time in the year 1696. He was by trade a shoe-maker, and may be ranked amongst the few who, in every age, distinguish themselves from the mass of mankind by their scientific and literary accomplishments, without the advantages of a liberal education. The success of his first calling does not appear to have been great, as perhaps he never followed it in a higher capacity than that of a journeyman. However this may be, he exchanged it, for the more lucrative employment of a baker, soon enough to afford his family the common conveniences of life; the profits of his new business supporting him in circumstances which, though not affluent, were far superior to the abject poverty he is said to have experienced, by the author of the British Topography. This writer, amongst other mistakes undoubtedly occasioned by false information, has recorded an anecdote of him, which is the fabrication of one of those inventive geniuses who are more partial to a good tale than attentive to the truth. He acquaints us, that Wilson was so intent on the pursuit of his favourite study, as once to be tempted to sell a cow, the support of his house, in order to procure the means of purchasing Morrison's voluminous work; and that this absurd design would have certainly been put in execution, had not a neighbouring lady presented him with the book, and by her generosity rescued the infatuated botanist from voluntary ruin. The story is [p.233] striking, but wants authenticity; and is absolutely contradicted by authority that cannot be disputed. At the time when Wilson studied botany, the knowledge of system was not to be obtained from English books; and Ray's botanical writings, of whose method he was a perfect master, were all in Latin. This circumstance makes it evident, that he acquired an acquaintance with the language of his author, capable of giving him a complete idea of the subject. The means by which he arrived at this proficiency are not known at present; and though such an attempt, made by an illiterate man, may appear to be attended with insuperable difficulties to those who have enjoyed a regular education, yet the experiment has been frequently made, and has been almost as frequently successful. No one ought to be surprised with the apparent impossibilities that perseverance constantly vanquishes, when properly stimulated by the love of knowledge. The powers of industry are not to be determined by speculation; they are seen and understood by their effects: it is this talent alone that forms the basis of genius, and distinguishes a man of abilities from the rest of his kind.

It was no easy undertaking to acquire the reputation of an expert and accurate botanist before Linnaeus's admirable method of discriminating species gave the science so essential an improvement.

The subject of the present essay overcame the difficulties inseparable from the enterprize, and merited the character from his intimate acquaintance with the vegetable productions of the North of England. But there is good reason to believe that he was not entirely self-taught; for, under the article Gentiana, he accidentally mentions his intercourse on the subject with Mr. Fitz-Roberts, who formerly resided in the neighbourhood of Kendal, and was known to Pettiver and Ray: his name occurs in the Synopsis of the latter gentleman. The numerous places of growth of the rarer plants added by Wilson to those found in former catalogues, shew how diligently he cultivated the practical part of botany.

It will appear a matter of surprise, to such as are ignorant of his manner of life, how a mechanic could spare a very large portion of time from engagements which ought to engross the attention of men in low circumstances, for the sole purpose of devoting it to the curious but unproductive researches of a naturalist. On this account it is proper to remark, that the business of a baker was principally managed by his wife, and that a long indisposition rendered. [p.234] him unfit for a sedentary employment. He was afflicted with a severe asthma for many years, which, while it prevented him from pursuing his trade as a shoe-maker, encouraged the cultivation of his favourite science, and he attended to it with all the ardour a sick man can experience. Fresh air, and moderate exercise, were the best palliatives of his cruel disease: thus he was tempted to amuse the lingering hours of sickness with frequent excursions in the more favourable parts of the year, as often as his health would permit; and, under the pressure of an unpropitious disorder, explored the marshes, and even the hills, of his native county, being often accompanied by such of his intimates as were partial to botany, or desirous of beholding those uncommon scenes of nature that can only be enjoyed in mountainous countries.

The singularity of his conversation contributed not a little to the gratification of his curiosity; for he was a diligent observer of manners and opinions, and delivered his sentiments with unreserved freedom. His discourse abounded with remarks, which were generally pertinent, and frequently original: many of his sententious expressions are still remembered by his neighbours and contemporaries. One of these deserves recording, as it shews that his knowledge of botany was not confined to the native production of England. Being once in the county of Durham, he was introduced to a person who took much pleasure in the cultivation of rare plants. This man, judging of his abilities by his appearance, and perhaps expecting to increase his own reputation by an easy victory over one he had heard commended so much, challenged him to a trial of skill; and, in the course of it, treated his stranger with a degree of disrespect that provoked his resentment, and prompted him to give an instance of his superiority. Accordingly, after naming most of the rarities contained in the garden, and referring to authors where they are described, he in his turn plucked a wild herb, growing in a neglected spot, and presented it to his opponent, who endeavoured to get clear of the difficulty by pronouncing it a weed; but Wilson immediately replied, a weed is a term of art, not a production of nature: adding, that the explanation proved his antagonist to be a gardener, not a botanist Thus the contest ended. These qualities, so uncommon in an unlettered man, procured him the notice of several persons of taste and fortune, whose hospitality enabled him to prosecute his researches on an (economical plan that suited his humble condition.

[p.235] Mr. Isaac Thompson, an eminent land-surveyor, resident at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, may be reckoned his steadiest patron, and warmest encourager; for he frequently accompanied this gentleman, when travelling in the line of his profession, under the character of an assistant,—an employment that left him at full liberty to examine the vegetable productions of the different places visited by them. But it is difficult to determine, at present, what experience he gained from his connection with Mr. Thompson; and the author of the present essay has scarcely any other means of discovering what were his opportunities of attending to the places of growth of the rarer plants, besides his own work the Synopsis, where the observations are in a great measure confined to Westmoreland and Northumberland. Perhaps this was done to accommodate his friends, who were numerous in those counties, and for whose use the book was chiefly intended: however, it appears from the volume itself, that he was not entirely unacquainted with the South of England. This work was published in the year 1744; it comprehends that part of Ray's method that treats of the more perfect herbs, beginning at the fourth genus, or class, and ending with the twenty-sixth. He promises, in the preface, to complete the performance at a future period, provided his first attempt should meet with a favourable reception from the public ; but did not live to fulfil his promise, being prevented by indisposition from finishing a second volume, which was intended to contain the Fungi, Mosses, Grasses, and Trees.

He died July 15, 1751, after lingering through the last three or four years of his life in a state of debility that rendered him unfit for any undertaking of the kind. Some papers left by him on the subject passed into the hands of Mr. Slack, printer, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but were never published. Among these were some drawings, but it is not certain whether they were representations of rare plants, or figures intended to illustrate the technical part of the science. The writings of Linnaeus became popular in England a short time after his death, and very soon supplanted all preceding systems; otherwise the character of Wilson had been better known to his countrymen at present. His Synopsis is certainly an improvement on that of Ray; for, besides some correction in the arrangement, many trivial observations are left out of it, to make room for generic and specific descriptions, the most essential parts of a botanical manual.

He did not increase the catalogue of British plants much, [p.236] only adding two to Ray's number, as distinct species, the AIlium schœnopprasum, and the Valeriana rubra; but he was the first who introduced the Circea alpina to the notice of the English botanist, as a variety of Chutitiana alpina growing near Sedberg, in Yorkshire.

1791, Sept.

Image colored and added (not in original article), from the black and white Plate 1 in John Wilson, A synopsis of British plants, in Mr. Ray's method. (1744), 16. Text from: John Walker, A Selection of Curious Articles from the Gentleman's Magazine (1811), Vol. 4, 232-236. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by John Wilson.
  • 15 Jul - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Wilson's death.
  • John Wilson - short biography from The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information (1832).
  • John Wilson - short biography from an article 'From A Country Parsonage', in The Gentleman's Magazine (1891).

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
Quotations by:Albert EinsteinIsaac NewtonLord KelvinCharles DarwinSrinivasa RamanujanCarl SaganFlorence NightingaleThomas EdisonAristotleMarie CurieBenjamin FranklinWinston ChurchillGalileo GalileiSigmund FreudRobert BunsenLouis PasteurTheodore RooseveltAbraham LincolnRonald ReaganLeonardo DaVinciMichio KakuKarl PopperJohann GoetheRobert OppenheimerCharles Kettering  ... (more people)

Quotations about:Atomic  BombBiologyChemistryDeforestationEngineeringAnatomyAstronomyBacteriaBiochemistryBotanyConservationDinosaurEnvironmentFractalGeneticsGeologyHistory of ScienceInventionJupiterKnowledgeLoveMathematicsMeasurementMedicineNatural ResourceOrganic ChemistryPhysicsPhysicianQuantum TheoryResearchScience and ArtTeacherTechnologyUniverseVolcanoVirusWind PowerWomen ScientistsX-RaysYouthZoology  ... (more topics)

Thank you for sharing.
- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton

by Ian Ellis
who invites your feedback
Thank you for sharing.
Today in Science History
Sign up for Newsletter
with quiz, quotes and more.