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Gilbert White was a pioneering English naturalist who transformed the way we look at the natural world. His lifelong love and talent for observing and recording nature influenced Charles Darwin, among many others.
White is best known for his book The Natural History of Selborne.
The Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793) spent most of his life in the small village of Selborne in Hampshire, UK. He was not a trained scientist but was very curious about the world around him - a true natural historian. It is that curiosity, and what he did about it, that resulted in him being a key inspiration to many naturalists who have followed in his footsteps.
It was White's focus on the behaviour of wildlife as much as its physical appearance that made him quite so unique in the field of natural history at the time. He patiently observed the migration patterns of birds, flowering times of plants, even the hibernation routines of his pet tortoise Timothy, purely for the joy of understanding them.
White's contemporaries and precursors across Europe focused on morphological differences between species to categorise them, or considered them only by their use to humans either as food or medicine. But as any naturalist today knows, behaviour can be as big a clue to species identification as the minutiae of physical characteristics.
White was a true observer, a student of the natural world. He was as fascinated by the ordinary as much as the extraordinary - that something was seen often or happened every year made no difference to how fascinating he might find it.
It is this passion that we see shared by some of the greatest naturalists of more recent times too - from the enthusiasm for earthworms that Charles Darwin shared with White, to the sheer delight we can see in David Attenborough on our television screens when he comes across something he has never seen before.
Gilbert White didn't just watch wildlife in its natural habitat, he made notes on everything, including planting in his garden, the weather and some of the local comings and goings of villagers.
He noted all of this in his Journals, Garden Kalendar, Flora Selborniensis and Naturalists' Journal (a pre-printed notebook for recording wildlife which was designed by his correspondent Daines Barrington).
Most importantly, White didn't keep his notes to himself. He wrote letters sharing his findings to people he could discuss his work with.
His most frequent correspondents were Thomas Pennant, who wrote British Zoology in 1766, and Daines Barrington, the then Vice President of the Royal Society.
White met Pennant and Barrington at his brother Benjamin's publishing house, the first natural history specialist printers in London. Through these links he also met others who he discussed his observations with, including a young Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.
At the time, Solander was the main supporter in London of Carl Linnaeus and it is likely that this meeting with Solander prompted White's attempts to use Linnean nomenclature in his journals and letters. White never corresponded with Linnaeus himself, but encouraged his brother John to share some of his findings from Gibraltar.
Much of Gilbert White's work was new and quite different to how others before him had recorded wildlife. In his letters to friends, family and scientific correspondents we find some of the earliest records describing particular species and their behaviour.
Letters to Thomas Pennant on 4 November 1767, 22 January 1768 and 30 March 1768 contain the first description of the harvest mouse. White suggested the name Mus minimus following Linnean nomenclature. However, as this name and description were not published until 1789 the credit for naming the harvest mouse as Micromys minitus goes to Peter Pallas, a Prussian zoologist and botanist, who published a description in 1771.
White also offers what is probably the first description of what we now call the noctule bat (Nyctalus noctula). He describes it as the great large bat in a letter to Pennant in December 1769.
White's most notable scientific achievement, however, relates to swallows, swifts and house martins. He was the first person to really study the behaviour of this group of birds.
Migrating birds had always been a significant conundrum for many scientists. Emerging global travel was making it even more confusing - it seemed ridiculous to think that these small birds could possibly travel such vast distances.
White made a special study of these species, particularly their behaviour and arrival times. He spoke frequently to Daines Barrington about this and in 1773 was invited to write a formal paper to the Royal Society on his observations of the house martin, which was read at a meeting of the Society on the 10 February 1774. A second letter on his observations of the swallow and swift was published in the Society's journal Philosophical Transactions later that year. You can read the letters on the Royal Society's Turning Pages website.
A keen ornithologist, White was also the first to discern that the willow wren was actually three separate species - chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler - mostly based on their songs.
White also spent much time observing insects and other small creatures, recognising that all had a role to play. About earthworms he wrote on 20 May 1777:
'Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them.'
At the time earthworms were thought to be pests and regularly killed. White's observations created a significant change in both gardening and agriculture.
Gilbert White's most famous book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, was published in 1789 at his brother's business on Fleet Street.
It remains the fourth-longest constantly-in-print book in the English language, after only the King James Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Pilgrim's Progress.
While there are older books, this strange but charming little book is the only one that has never been out of print. This is perhaps less due to an inherent interest in the biological records held within The Natural History of Selborne, but more due to the picture it preserves of an almost forgotten rural English life. Through the words of this one man and his love of the world around him, we feel drawn into that picture.
During times of crisis and particularly war, we see a spike in publication of the book, people reading it or buying abridged versions to send with their sons to war as a reminder of a peaceful 'green and pleasant land'.
White himself lived through times of war, poverty and strife, but he rarely refers to them in The Natural History of Selborne, although there are references in his personal letters. This distraction and glimpse back to a better world, yet one filled with the detail of observation, essentially saved the book.
To date there have been over 400 separate editions of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne and it has been translated into seven languages. There have also been numerous biographies and commentaries on both the book and White - even two books written from the perspective of his pet tortoise!
The original manuscript can be seen at the Gilbert White and Oates Family Museum, along with what must be the most complete collection of editions of The Natural History of Selborne. The museum is in The Wakes, White's home in Selborne, and is a must-see for anyone interested in him - you can feel the memory of White around the whole village and really get a sense of place as to what he was writing about.
18 July 1720: Gilbert White is born at the Selborne vicarage, where his grandfather, also Gilbert White, is the parish vicar.
As a graduate of Oriel rather than Magdalen College, Oxford, the younger White could never become vicar of the parish himself but was the curate of Selborne four times.
1736: Aged 16, White makes his first known wildlife observations.
30 June 1743: White graduates with a BA from Oriel College at Oxford. He is presented with a copy of Alexander Pope's Iliad, in which his friend Thomas Chapman drew the only two known sketches of White done during his lifetime.
1744: White becomes a Fellow of Oriel College.
1746: White is ordained a deacon, followed by full ordination three years later.
1751-73: White writes the Garden Kalendar, a detailed record of activities in his garden.
1752: He becomes proctor at Oxford.
1754: White begins writing a journal, a habit he keeps up for the rest of his life.
1756: He becomes vicar of Moreton Pinkney, Northamptonshire, on condition that he can remain living in Selborne.
1763: White inherits The Wakes at Selborne, his home since he was about eight, from his uncle. He continues to live there for the rest of his life, making many modifications to both the house, gardens and surrounding land.
1766: White compiles Flora Selborniensis, a daily record of the plants at home, particularly those coming into flower.
1768: White starts his Naturalist's Journal, which he continues until his death.
10 February 1774: White's paper on house martin behaviour is presented at the Royal Society. Later that year he publishes a paper on the behaviour of other martin species.
8 March 1780: White's aunt Rebecca Snooke dies. He inherits her pet tortoise Timothy whose behaviour had fascinated him during regular visits.
1789: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is published. It has never since been out of print.
26 June 1793: Gilbert White dies at home, aged 72. He is buried in the graveyard of St Mary's Church in Selborne and has only a small, plain gravestone marked with the initials GW. The church installs a magnificent stained-glass window memorialising him in 1920.
The Natural History Museum appears not to hold any specimens collected by Gilbert White, including in the collections of Thomas Pennant. We know White sent specimens to him, but sadly these don't seem to have survived.
The Museum does, however, care for a number of editions of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, including two first editions. Also, the shell of White's tortoise Timothy is on display in our Reptiles gallery. It was donated to us by White's great niece.
There is one known hawfinch specimen in the collections of the Gilbert White Museum which is likely one of White's.
As a self-taught, generalist observer of wildlife, White became the starting point of the modern amateur naturalist or biological recorder. Throughout his work he incorporated all the elements of a good biological record - who, what, when and where - just as we do today.
White's influence is extensive. From ordinary amateur naturalists to acclaimed scientists, many people cite him, or unknowingly follow his methods.
Charles Darwin referred to White as one of his core influences in a rare interview given more than 80 years after the publication of The Natural History of Selborne. Darwin said the book had deeply impressed him.
There has never been a greater need to follow in White's footsteps than today. Firstly, for the mental health respite of being immersed in the natural world, but also to get out, record wildlife and share those findings. Such data is critical to understand how species populations and distributions are adapting in our rapidly changing world as we face a planetary emergency.
Organisations like the Gilbert White Museum and the Selborne Society continue to maintain White's name, but it is in the legacy of the modern natural historian that we see his work remembered - so grab your notebook, get outside and get recording.
I finished writing this article on the 26 June 2020, the 227th anniversary of Gilbert White's death. His final journal entry had been only a few days before on the 15 June, but recorded only the death of his best friend John Mulso's son.
I feel it only right to end this article with an extract from the anonymous memorial to him which was published in the Gentleman's Magazine on the 11 July 1793:
'A sigh escapes me on the demise of that most excellent man, accurate historian, diligent naturalist, and elegant writer, the Rev Gilbert White.'