John James Audubon (1785-1851)

John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Audubon was born in Haiti in 1875 to a French plantation owner and his mistress. He was raised in France by his stepmother and as a child was noted as having a strong interest in “birds, nature, drawing and music.” In 1803, Audubon was sent to Philadelphia to avoid the military draft into Napoleon’s Army. From here, working as a trader and a business man, he explored Eastern and Central North America. Along the way he collected and painted a variety of birds for his most famous publication, The Birds of America, published in 1827-1839. The Birds of America illustrated even the largest birds in life-sized proportions, and was printed in parts on 'double-elephant' paper which is almost 40 inches wide by 30 inches tall. Between 1826-1838 Audubon came to Britain to find an engraver capable of meeting his high standards. He spent a total of three years in Edinburgh, where he met and worked with the great Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. They became great friends and MacGillivray is credited with much of the scientific content in the extensive texts that accompanied Audubon's superb illustrations. When MacGillivray was appointed to the Chair of Civil and Natural History at Marischal College in 1841 he brought to Aberdeen many items he had been given by Audubon. Most of this material has only come to light in the past few years.

Autographic notes of William MacGillivray,
chiefly on British birds, 1836-40. MS 2159

The Sir Duncan Rice Library holds a copy of volume 2 of The Birds of America, covering parts 21-40, plates 100-200. The history of this volume is unknown.  There is a full set of Audubon's Ornithological Biography (1831-1849; SB 5982(73) Aud) and the separately published text which accompanies the plates, which MacGillivray helped to prepare.


The Special Collections Centre holds journals and notes by William MacGillivray. In this excerpt from one of MacGillivray’s journals, a chapter entitled “The Two Ornithologists”, he discusses his relationship with James Audubon.

Yellow-throated Vireo skin prepared by Audubon, and
presented to MacGillivray, RN 26,959

One of 12 bird skins given by Audubon to MacGillivray. 

Polygala pubescens, North America.

This is one of nearly 70 herbarium sheets given by Audubon to MacGillivray. They were collected by Miss Bachman, a relation of the Rev John Bachman, another of the American natural history greats. The Rev John Bachman collaborated with Audubon to produce a sister work on mammals, The Quadrupeds of North America (1846-1854). The two families were very close for many years, and two of Bachman's daughters married Audubon's sons, though both died young.

Audubon collected skulls of native Americans for Samuel George Morton's surveys of human variation, and some skulls also found their way to Aberdeen, presumably through MacGillivray. Previously housed in the Anatomy Museum, the collection of skulls came to light in 2009 and is now housed in the Collections Centre at Marischal College.

For more information on the University museum and archival collections please search the online catalogue