Gilbert White FRS was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist.
White was born in his grandfather's vicarage at Selborne in Hampshire. He was educated at the Holy Ghost School and by a private tutor in Basingstoke before going to Oriel College, Oxford. He obtained his deacon's orders in 1746, being fully ordained in 1749, and subsequently held several curacies in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Selborne's neighbouring parishes of Newton Valence and Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. In 1752/53 White held the office of Junior Proctor at Oxford and was Dean of Oriel. In 1757 he became non-resident perpetual curate of Moreton Pinkney in Northamptonshire. After the death of his father in 1758, White moved back into the family home at The Wakes in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death. Having studied at the more prestigious Oriel, at the behest of his uncle, he was ineligible to be considered for the permanent living of Selborne, which was in the gift of Magdalen College.
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
White is best known for his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). This was a compilation of his letters to Thomas Pennant, the leading British zoologist of the day, and the Hon. Daines Barrington, an English barrister and another Fellow of the Royal Society. These letters contained White's discoveries about local birds, animals and plants. He believed in distinguishing birds by observation rather than by collecting specimens, and was thus one of the first people to separate the similar-looking Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Wood Warbler by means of their song.
White is regarded by many as England's first ecologist and one of the founders of modern respect for nature. He said of the earthworm:
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...
White and William Markwick collected records of the dates of emergence of more than 400 plant and animal species, White recording in Hampshire and Markwick in Sussex between 1768 and 1793. These data, summarised in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne as the earliest and latest dates for each event over the 25-year period, are among the earliest examples of modern phenology. His 1783–84 diary corroborates the dramatic climatic impacts of the volcanic 'Laki haze' that spread from Iceland with lethal consequences across Europe.
White's frequent accounts of a tortoise inherited from his aunt in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne form the basis for Verlyn Klinkenborg's book, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006), as well as for Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Portrait of a Tortoise (1946).
Gilbert White's famous work has been continuously in print since its first publication and is one of the most frequently published books in the English language; it is available online from the Gutenberg Project. The paperback edition of The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne was last reprinted by Thames & Hudson in 2007. It was long held to be the fourth-most published book in the English language after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Gilbert White's sister Anne was married to Thomas Barker (1722-1809), called 'The father of meteorology', and Gilbert maintained a correspondence with his nephew Samuel Barker, who also kept a naturalist's journal.
His house in Selborne, The Wakes, now contains the Gilbert White Museum, as well as the Oates Memorial Museum, commemorating Frank and Lawrence Oates.
The Selborne Society was founded in 1895 to perpetuate the memory of Gilbert White. It purchased land at Perivale in West London to create the first Bird Sanctuary in Britain, known as Perivale Wood. In the 1970s, Perivale Wood became a Local Nature Reserve. This was designated by Ealing Borough Council under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. It was at the instigation of small group of young naturalists led by Edward Dawson, with the support of Andrew Duff, Peter Edwards and Kevin Roberts.
The Gilbert White Fellowship was founded in 1932 by Winifred Boyd Watt, a historian and naturalist. It was based at Oxford, but was unable to gain continued financial sponsorship. Suggestions to revive it have been made in 2010 as part of the Selborne Society's Gilbert White Memorial Library relocation.
White is quoted by Merlyn in The Once and Future King by T.H. White.
A biography of White by Richard Mabey was published by Century Hutchinson in 1986, and won the Whitbread Biography of the Year award.
A documentary about White, presented by historian Michael Wood, was broadcast by BBC Four in 2006.
He is commemorated in the inscription on the heaviest of eight bells installed in 2009 at Holybourne, Hampshire.
Gilbert White's Works:
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789)
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