Wilson, William (1799-1871) (DNB00)

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WILSON, WILLIAM (1799–1871), botanist, second son of Thomas Wilson, a druggist, was born at Warrington on 7 June 1799. He was educated at Prestbury grammar school and under Dr. Reynolds at the Dissenters' Academy, Leaf Square, Manchester, and was then articled to a firm of solicitors in Manchester; but intense application to the study of conveyancing brought on headaches which were followed by serious illness. This led to his taking much outdoor exercise, in the course of which he acquired his love of botany, and ultimately, when he was about five-and-twenty, his mother gave him a small allowance so that he could devote himself entirely to this pursuit. As early as 1821 he had discovered the Cotoneaster on Great Orme's Head. This brought him into correspondence with Sir James Edward Smith [q. v.], who encouraged him to devote himself to botany. In 1827 Professor John Stevens Henslow [q. v.] introduced him to Professor (afterwards Sir William Jackson) Hooker [q. v.], and at the invitation of the latter he joined a five days' excursion of the Glasgow botanical students in the Breadalbane Hills. He afterwards spent nearly two years in Ireland, where, no doubt under Hooker's influence, he attached himself to the study of mosses, which from 1830 engrossed his whole attention. From 1829 onward he is frequently quoted in Hooker's ‘British Flora;’ and, becoming well known as a bryologist, he entered into correspondence with such specialists as Lindberg of Helsingfors and Schimper of Strasburg, and was entrusted with the description of the mosses collected in the voyages of the Erebus and Terror and the Herald, before the publication of his magnum opus. This work, the ‘Bryologia Britannica,’ intended as a third edition of the ‘Muscologia Britannica’ (first issued in 1818) of (Sir) W. J. Hooker and Thomas Taylor (d. 1848) [q. v.], ‘but substantially a new work of the highest merit’ (Jackson, Guide to the Literature of Botany, p. 241), was published in 1855 (London, 8vo), and was pronounced by Lindberg ‘one of the most exact works in botany.’ Nevertheless over a hundred new species of British mosses were added to the list between its publication and his death, and he is reported to have said that ‘the only thing he wished to live for was to bring out a revised edition,’ which, however, he was unable to do.

Wilson died at Paddington, two miles from Warrington, on 3 April 1871, and was buried in the nonconformist burial-ground, Hill Cliff, Warrington. He married in 1836 a widowed cousin, Mrs. Lane.

Besides the Cotoneaster, Wilson added a new species of rose, a fern, and many mosses to the British list, the rose Rosa Wilsoni being named after him by William Borrer, and the Killarney filmy fern named Hymenophyllum Wilsoni by Sir W. J. Hooker. Wilson described many new species of exotic mosses in the ‘Journal of Botany,’ his papers being enumerated in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue’ (vi. 389, viii. 1249), and his herbarium and botanical correspondence preserved at the Natural History Museum.

[Cash's Where there's a Will there's a Way, 1873, p. 145.]

G. S. B.