In his too-short life, Francis Willughby helped found the Royal Society, differentiated birds through identification of their distinguishing features, and asked questions that were, in some cases, centuries ahead of their time. Tim Birkhead describes and celebrates how Willughby's endeavors set a standard for the way birds—and indeed the whole of natural history—should be studied.
This fine biography of Francis Willughby (1635-72) is intriguingly double-layered, the life of a 17th-century naturalist seen through the eyes of a modern ornithologist ... The dialogue between past and present brings the whole book alive ... Mr. Birkhead responds engagingly to Willughby’s eager curiosity, adding contemporary knowledge, including vivid observations and personal anecdotes—another story of the making of a naturalist. We feel the author’s excitement.
The Wonderful Mr Willughby is the story of Willughby’s short life, elegantly and engagingly told by Tim Birkhead ... After centuries of work that has built on their innovations, and decades of accurately illustrated field guides, Birkhead reminds us that we cannot underestimate the darkness in which Willughby and Ray laboured ... Common names have continued to be chronically unstable, and Birkhead gives an interesting list of those that have changed since Willughby and Ray recorded them in the Ornithology.
...religiously researched ... The author’s prose can wax academic and he bandies about terms like hemipenes and cloaca without explanation, as if he is lecturing to an advanced university class. The reader may read more about the internal organs of birds – the testes of green woodpeckers, for example – than he or she cares to ... That said, this biography makes an important contribution to a fuller understanding of Mr. Willughby’s pioneering career ... Perhaps as important, this book reaffirms in a very dramatic and specific way the vital role of science in the advancement of human understanding and welfare.