Gilbert White

Gilbert White transformed the way we look at the natural world. He is recognised as one of the fathers of ecology.

Gilbert White (1720 - 1793) © British Museum

Gilbert White (1720 - 1793)  © British Museum

Gilbert White, curate at the Hampshire village of Selborne, was one of the first English naturalists to make careful observations of his surroundings and record these observations in a systematic way. White developed a deep insight into the inter-relationships of living things. He combined a naturalist's skills with an ability to influence a wider audience through his writing.

Work

Born in 1720, White was educated in Basingstoke by Thomas Wharton, professor of poetry at Oxford, before going to Oriel College, Oxford.

White followed his grandfather and uncle into the church. From an early age he took a close interest in the natural world around him.

White is best known for his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). This was a compilation of letters written to Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, both leading naturalists of the day. In the letters, White discussed his observations and theories about the local fauna and flora in a charming and immediate way. The book is one of the most published in the English language and it has never been out of print.

An enthusiastic gardener, White grew many flowers, vegetables and fruits at a time when many new kinds were being introduced. He was thus the first person in the area to grow crops such as potatoes. He experimented, observed and recorded everything to do with his garden. These interests led him to his insights into natural history.

Most of Gilbert White's contemporaries were convinced that swallows spent the winter hibernating in holes or under the mud of local ponds. Gilbert White, aware of bird migration, debated this issue with his correspondents and sought evidence for either the hibernation or migration of swallows, but he never reached a decisive conclusion. 

White's original emphasis was on the study of birds . From his pioneering work in bird observation, he expanded into other areas of natural science.

White primarily believed in studying birds and other creatures in the field . This was an unusual approach at a time when most naturalists preferred to carry out detailed examinations of dead specimens in their study. White was thus the first to distinguish the willow wren as three species - chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler - largely on the basis of their songs. He was the first to accurately describe the harvest mouse and the noctule bat. White spent much time observing crickets and other small creatures, recognising that all had a role to play. He studied the earthworm and said of it, 'Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. Worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them.' (1770)

Gilbert White's journals, which he kept for most of his life (the Garden Kalender 1751-67, the Flora Selborniensis 1766 and the Naturalist's Journal 1768-93) are unique in their detail and the length of time they span. White meticulously and systematically recorded observations about the weather and about the flora and fauna of Selborne - even when he was away from home, he arranged for others to continue the recordings so as to maintain the sequences. His journals abound with evocative quotes, which still today brings his world to life.

 'A vast rain. The hay lies about in a miserable way.' (Garden Kalendar, July 29, 1763)
'Ground so icy that people get frequent falls.' (Journal, Dec. 28, 1783)
'Severe frost, and still sunny fine days. It freezes even in the kitchen.' (Garden Kalendar, Dec. 30, 1767).

White's brother Benjamin was a publisher of many volumes on natural history. Benjamin introduced Gilbert to Thomas Pennant (one of the foremost zoologists of the time) and Daines Barrington. Gilbert corresponded with them and other naturalists, such as Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Later, Darwin used White's observations as the basis for some of his own work.

White's writings inspired many other naturalists. His legacy as an accurate and systematic recorder of the natural world lives to this day.

Timeline

1720Born 18 July in Selborne, Hampshire. Later that year, the family left Selborne.
1727George II becomes King.
1729White's family return to Selborne to live with Gilbert's now-widowed grandmother. Selborne remains White's home for the rest of his life.
1735Linnaeus suggests a new system of classifying living organisms. It soon becomes standard practice.
1740Enters Oriel College, Oxford.
1744Becomes a Fellow of Oriel College.
1746Ordained Deacon and becomes Curate for his uncle Charles, who is vicar at Farringdon in Hampshire.
1749Full ordination.
1750Start of the Industrial Revolution.
1751White starts the Garden Kalender , a detailed journal recording activities in his garden
1752Becomes proctor at Oxford.
1756Becomes vicar of Moreton Pinkney, Northamptonshire. Only agrees to this provided he does not have to be resident there, but can stay in Selborne.
1760George III becomes King.
1763White inherits his house, The Wakes, from his uncle. Gilbert had lived in the house since 1729.
1766Compiles Flora Selborniensis, a detailed record, primarily of the flora of Selborne.
1767Meets Thomas Pennant for the first time.
1768Starts The Naturalist's Journal, which he continues until his death. It is a comprehensive record of the natural world in the Selborne area.
1769Meets Daines Barrington for the first time.
1770Barrington suggests White should write a book.
1774Publication by the Royal Society of White's paper on Hirundines (swallows).
1775-83American War of Independence.
1780Death of White's aunt Rebecca Snooke. White inherits her tortoise, Timothy.
1789Publication of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.
1793Gilbert White dies in Selborne on 26 June, aged 72 years old.
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