William Swainson, British naturalist

William Swainson, British naturalist

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Credit: PAUL D STEWART/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Caption: William John Swainson (1789-1855), British naturalist and artist. Swainson pioneered lithography in natural history, but is best remembered for his ill-fated Quinarian System of classification. In the 1830s he followed William MacLeay (1819) that the number five had biological resonance in the subdivision of groups. In a pre-Darwinian world such artifice perhaps seemed no more surprising than that vertebrate animals tend to have five digits. The system became elaborate and, though briefly popular, fell from fashion by the mid 1840s. Swainson and MacLeay were derided, and both left for Australia. One observer supposed they had been exiled for the 'great crime of burdening zoology with a false though much laboured theory which has thrown so much confusion into the subject'. Engraving by Mosses and Finden as frontispiece to Swainson's 'Taxidermy and Biography of Zoologists (1840).

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