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Papers of Wilfrid Backhouse Alexander


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The papers comprise: field and research notes, species notecards, bird distribution maps, bibliographical notes, correspondence, printed materials, bird images (including plates, photographs, cuttings, and some original illustrations), and photographs.


  • Creation: 1761-1990


1.79 Linear metres (25 boxes)

Language of Materials

  • English

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark, e.g. MS. 14895/1].

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Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. 14895/1-25

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 14895


Papers, fieldwork and bird image collections of Wilfrid Backhouse Alexander, ornithologist.

Biographical / Historical

Wilfred Backhouse Alexander, after whom the Alexander Library of Ornithology was named, was born in Croydon, Surrey on 4 Feb 1885. He and his brothers, Christopher James and Horace Gundry Alexander, were introduced to natural history by their two uncles, James and Albert Crosfield. He was educated at Bootham School in York, 1898-1901, and Tonbridge School in Kent, 1901-1903. After an interval of a few years, due to ill health, in 1906 he went to King's College, Cambridge, to study Natural Sciences. He graduated in 1909 with first class honours. During this time his main interest was in botany.

After graduation he stayed in Cambridge for a short time, working as an assistant superintendent of the Cambridge Museum of Zoology and assistant demonstrator in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy for Cambridge University, 1910-1911. In 1911 he took a job with the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries as an assistant naturalist on an international exploration of the North Sea, but in August that year obtained the appointment of Assistant at the Western Australian Museum. He moved to Australia in early 1912 to take up the position which he held for three years before being made Keeper of Biology at the museum. He made a number of expeditions to collect material for the museum, including the Percy Sladen Trust Expedition to the Abrolhos Islands in 1913. He became Honorary Secretary and co-editor of the journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia in 1914. In 1916 the museum was under severe financial pressure and Alexander was granted leave without pay to take up a position as science abstractor to the Advisory Council of Science and Industry in Melbourne, which he held until 1919 when he returned to the Western Australian Museum for a short time, until 1920. During this period he also acted as librarian to the Royal Australian Ornithologists' Union, which he became vice-president of from 1923-1925. He was also editor of the union's journal, Emu, from 1924-1925.

In 1920 the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board, based in Queensland, was formed with the purpose of finding a way to control several species of Opuntia which were taking over vast areas of subtropical eastern Australia: W.B. Alexander was appointed biologist to the board. The project took him on visits to North and South America in search of a suitable insect agent and in 1924 he was promoted to Officer-in-charge. The result of these overseas investigations was the highly successful use of the insect Cactoblastis in controlling the Opuntia species in Australia; they also aroused his interest in oceanic birds. Leaving Australia in 1926, he spent most of the year at the American Museum of Natural History preparing the book Birds of the Ocean (1928), before returning to England.

He had no regular employment from 1926 until he was appointed Superintendent of the Marine Biological Association's Tees Estuary survey in 1929. In 1930 he was appointed Director of the Oxford Bird Census, which developed into the Oxford University Research in Economic Ornithology in 1931, then the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in 1938, funded by the newly formed British Trust for Ornithology. W.B. Alexander remained as Director of these successive organizations until he retired in 1945, but stayed on as librarian until 1955. He was awarded the Tucker medal of the British Trust for Ornithology in 1955 and the Union Medal of the British Ornithologists' Union in 1959. From 1956, he spent his retirement in Dorset where he died on 18 Dec 1965.


Adams, J.K., 1966. Obituary. Wilfred Backhouse Alexander, 1885-1965. Ibis, 108(2), pp.288-289

Lack, D., 1966. W.B. Alexander. Nature, 209(5925), pp.759-760

Lack, D., Wilfred Backhouse Alexander 1885-1965. Oxford Ornithological Society Report for 1965, pp.2-5

Nicholson, E.M., 1966. Obituary. Wilfred Backhouse Alexander (1885-1965). British Birds, 59, pp.125-128

Serventy, D.L., 1967. Obituary W.B. Alexander, M.A. The Western Australian Naturalist, 10(6), pp.139-148


Material is arranged as received from the Alexander Library of Ornithology.

Custodial History

The plans for proposed alterations to St. John's Cottage (in MS. 14895/21) were presented to the Alexander Library of Ornithology by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), being included in papers sent to the BTO by Max Nicholson.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Transferred from the Alexander Library of Ornithology, 2018.

Catalogue of the papers of Wilfrid Backhouse Alexander
Finding aid prepared by EAD version by Sarah Thiel, Meg Woodward and Marion Lowman
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom