Francis Willughby lived and thrived in the midst of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Along with his Cambridge tutor John Ray, Willughby was determined to overhaul the whole of natural history and impose order on its complexity. It was exhilarating, exacting and exhausting work. Yet before Willughby and Ray could complete their monumental encyclopaedia of birds, Ornithology, Willughby died. In the centuries since, Ray's reputation has grown, obscuring that of his collaborator. Now, for the first time, Willughby's own story and genius are given the attention they deserve.
In his short life, Willughby – an original member the Royal Society – finessed the differentiation of birds though identification of their distinguishing features and asked questions that were centuries ahead of their time. His discoveries and his approach to natural history continue to be relevant – and revelatory – today.
With a fellow expert's understanding and passion, Tim Birkhead celebrates how Willughby's endeavours set a standard for the way birds and natural history should be studied. Rich with glorious detail, The Wonderful Mr Willughby is a fascinating insight into a thrilling period of scientific history and a lively biography of a man who lived at its heart.
Tim Birkhead FRS is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and history of science. Among his other books are Promiscuity; Great Auk Islands; The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ortnithology, which won the McColvin medal; The Red Canary, which won the Consul Cremer Prize; Bird Sense, which was the Guardian's and the Independent's Natural History Book of the Year; and The Most Perfect Thing, winner of the Zoological Society of London's Communicating Zoology Award for 2016. He lives in Sheffield.
"In this engrossing biography of "the first true ornithologist", Birkhead takes us on imaginative journey to the time of Charles II, when there was no classification of animals, birds and plants; when men such as Willughby often endured great hardship in order to make ground-breaking discoveries"
– Bel Mooney, Daily Mail
"Energetically pursuing his quarry, Birkhead has combined ingenuity and perseverance to produce an evocative portrait of a great pioneer in the scientific study of birds"
– Patricia Fara, Literary Review
"Brilliantly researched – a vivid celebration of a neglected pioneer of scientific natural history"
– Nick Davies, author of Cuckoo
"A joint celebration of two of the great scientific brains of the Age of Reason [...] [An] engaging study'"
– Country Life
"[A] precise and rigorously told biography [...] There's a quiddity about [Birkhead's] writing that follows in his subject's steps"
– Philip Hoare, New Statesman
– Big Issue
"Francis Willughby is an ideal subject for a biography [...] An entertaining and informative book, packed with well-explained scientific detail"
– Sam Leith, Spectator
"The story of Willughby's short life, elegantly and engagingly told by Tim Birkhead"
– Francis Gooding, London Review of Books
"Enthralling [...] Tim Birkhead's careful sleuthing uncovers the remarkable story of an ingenious gentleman-scholar living at the dawn of the scientific revolution"
– Matt Ridley, author of The Evolution of Everything
"If you ever thought the history of natural history might be dull, this wonderful book, a masterpiece of biographical sleuthing, will quickly dispel that illusion [...] The author's passion for his subjects, both human and avian, shine through as he brings history to life and relates past to present"
– Jonathan Elphick, BBC Wildlife
"T'he resurrection of a lost historical figure of importance is unfailingly a cause of fascination, and so it is with Francis Wiilughby, 17th-century gentleman-scholar and "the first true ornithologist", as an absorbing new biography by Tim Birkhead unhesitatingly labels him. [...] Birkhead iIgives us a most moving portrait of an unusual scientific friendship, at the very moment when science as we know it today was emerging from medieval darkness into the light."
– Resurgence & Ecologist no. 312, Jan/Feb 2019
"[...] Though scholarly and detailed, Birkhead’s life of Willughby, the first ornithologist, is as clear and engaging as you would expect from the author of Bird Sense and The Most Perfect Thing. Like his doomed hero, he is that rare breed of scientist who captures his audience through brilliant story-telling, well-constructed arguments and a sense of history. I think that his students at Sheffield should count themselves very lucky."
– Peter Marren, British Wildlife 30(1), October 2018
"[...] A lot of work has gone into piecing this historical puzzle together and Tim Birkhead has done a good job at celebrating the short life of Francis Willughby, and his peers. It is written well, with plenty of detail and beautiful artwork – what’s not to enjoy?"
– Claire Boothby, BTO book reviews