Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, John (d.1751)

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1050117Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62 — Wilson, John (d.1751)1900George Simonds Boulger

WILSON, JOHN (d. 1751), botanist, was born at Longsleddal, near Kendal, Westmorland, and began life as a journeyman shoemaker, or, according to another account, as a stocking-maker. Being asthmatic, however, he required an outdoor life, and acted as assistant to Isaac Thompson, a well-known land surveyor of Newcastle-on-Tyne, while his wife carried on a baker's shop. Probably in connection with this last trade he obtained the nickname of ‘Black Jack.’ He possibly learnt his botany in part from John Robinson or FitzRoberts of the Gill, near Kendal, a correspondent of Ray and Petiver; but with ‘uncommon natural parts’ he made himself ‘one of the most knowing herbalists of his time’ (Newcastle Journal, 27 July 1751), and is said at one time to have earned 60l. a year by giving lessons in botany once a week at his native place and at Newcastle, many pupils coming to him from the south of Scotland. It is recorded of him that, being anxious to possess Morison's ‘Historia Plantarum,’ he determined to sell his cow, almost the sole support of his family, but a lady in the neighbourhood, hearing of the circumstance, gave him the book. This anecdote and the character of his work show that Wilson must have acquired a knowledge of Latin. In 1744 he published ‘A Synopsis of British Plants, in Mr. Ray's Method: … Together with a Botanical Dictionary. Illustrated with several Figures’ (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 8vo). This book is based upon, but not a mere translation of, Dillenius's edition of Ray's ‘Synopsis Stirpium Britannicarum’ (1724), but is the first systematic account of British plants in English, and shows considerable original observation and thought (Pulteney, Sketches of the Progress of Botany, ii. 264–9). The introduction of the artificial Linnæan system led to Wilson's work being overlooked; but Robert Brown, in his ‘Prodromus Floræ Novæ Hollandiæ’ (p. 490), dedicated the convolvulaceous genus Wilsonia ‘in memoriam Johannis Wilson auctoris operis haud spernandi.’ The descriptions of trees, grasses, and cryptogams, which were to have formed a second volume, were left in manuscript, which, in 1762, it was, according to Pulteney (op. cit. p. 269), proposed to publish. Wilson died at Kendal on 15 July 1751, the last three or four years of his life having been spent in so debilitated a state of health as to entirely unfit him for work.

[Hone's Year-Book, p. 827; Nicholson's Annals of Kendal, p. 343.]

G. S. B.