Gilbert White (1720-1793)

Gilbert White was a natural scientist, who is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of natural history and ecology. His most famous work, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789, has never been out of print and is one of the most published books in the English language.

White was born and brought up in Selborne, Hampshire, where his grandfather was vicar. He was admitted to Oriel as an undergraduate in April 1740 and graduated with a BA in June 1743. In 1744 he was elected to a Fellowship of the College.

In 1749 White was ordained into the Anglican Church. Unable to become vicar of Selborne because patronage of the parish belonged to Magdalen College, in 1751 he took a curacy in the nearby parish of Farringdon. In later years he declined several better livings and remained curate variously of Farringdon, Selborne, and other villages in the area until his death, living unmarried in The Wakes, his family’s Selborne home. The only place regularly to tempt him away from Hampshire was Oxford. In 1752-3 he served as the University’s Junior Proctor on behalf of Oriel College, from 1752 he was Dean of Oriel, and in 1757 he stood unsuccessfully for the Provostship.

After 1757 White retired increasingly to Selborne. Always a keen gardener, he took an ever closer interest in the natural world around him. For forty years he kept a detailed diary – part gardening notes, part meteorological log, and part naturalist’s database – in which he recorded his activities and observations. He was a horticultural experimentalist, growing a number of then almost unknown crops, including sea kale and sweet corn.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne began as correspondences between White and two friends in which they discussed their observations and theories about their local flora and fauna. White believed in studying living birds and animals as far as possible in their natural habitat (though, in accordance with contemporary practice, he also shot birds and small animals in order to examine their anatomy). His preference for close observation of living plants and animals in interaction helped White to move the study of the natural world beyond taxonomy to the study of ecosystems as integrated wholes. Though notoriously uninterested in the world-changing events of  his day – he lived through the French Revolution, the agricultural revolution, and several major wars, none of which he mentions – he was one of the first scientists to recognize that ecosystems include human beings and their activities.

Through his close study of different bird calls, White established that the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler are three separate species. He was the first naturalist to identify and describe the harvest mouse and the noctule bat. A century before Darwin, he made a detailed study of earthworms. In The Natural History of Selborne, Letter 35, from 1739 he observes that farmers and gardeners dislike worms, thinking wrongly that they eat crops, but that the earth without worms would soon become ‘cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation, and consequently sterile’.

White died in 1793 at Selborne.

More about Gilbert White: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography