Gilbert White

Gilbert White was born in Hampshire in 1720. He was educated at Farnham and then at Basingstoke Grammar School. He developed a love of literature, but also took pleasure from life outdoors. He began to make observations of nature in southern and central England. He went up to Oriel College, Oxford in 1740 to read English literature. He spent a substantial amount of time and money hunting, but had something of an epiphany in 1741, when he came to realise that killing for sport was against Providence. He continued to shoot for the table and for specimens, but in a spirit of enquiry rather than for sport. He graduated in 1743 and became a fellow of his college in 1744.

White joined the Anglican church and was made a deacon in 1747. He was appointed as curate of a small parish in Hampshire. He continued to visit widely, collecting specimens and undertaking various experiments. From 1751 he began to note a daily record of natural phenomena and garden activity, which he continued for over 40 years. He continued his role as curate and his social rounds and in 1752 was elected as junior proctor in the University of Oxford. He was also dean of his own college.

Throughout the 1750s and 1760s, White developed the garden of his house, The Wakes, in Selbourne. Features included a terrace, zig-zag path, sundial, ha-ha, hermitage and an arbour from which he made his observations. He extended his library to help him in this last task, buying, amongst other titles, William Hudson's Flora Anglica (1762). He wrote ‘Flora Selborniensis' in 1766, although it was not published until 1911. In this he noted migratory habits and stages of growth of vegetation.

He met the zoologist Thomas Pennant in 1767, who invited him to correspond. At Pennant's suggestion, Daines Barrington sent White a copy of his design for a naturalist's notebook, which White continued to use for the next 25 years. White recognised the benefits of meticulous record keeping, and arranged to have blank pages added to his copies to allow extended notes and comments. He began to correspond with Barrington, and the letters both to him and to Pennant would bring White's observations into the sphere of the Royal Society of London.

Barrington encouraged White to publish his material, and eventually Selborne was published on 1 November 1788. The volume brought White great acclaim and several new correspondents. After White's death in 1793, previously unpublished material was published in A Naturalist's Calendar, with Observations in Various Branches of Natural History (1795).

Bibliography

Foster, Paul 'White, Gilbert (1720-1793)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006) [ accessed 29 June 2009]

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