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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index W > Gilbert White Quotes

Thumbnail of Gilbert White (source)
Gilbert White
(18 Jul 1720 - 26 Jun 1793)

English clergyman and naturalist whose much-loved book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, has been continuously in print since it was published in 1789. It contains his extensive, detailed observations of his region's flora and fauna. No authentic picture of White is known. The thumbnail image shown here is from an artist’s imagination for a mannequin representing White on display at Gilbert White’s House.


Science Quotes by Gilbert White (12 quotes)

Google map of southern England with map pin showing Selborne very roughly equidistant to London, Southampton and Brighton.
Selborne is a village in eastern Hampshire, 3.9 miles south of Alton. (source)
A good ornithologist should be able to distinguish birds by their air as well as by their colors and shape; on the ground as well as on the wing, and in the bush as well as in the hand. For, though it must not be said that every species of birds has a manner peculiar to itself, yet there is somewhat, in most genera at least, that at first sight discriminates them and enables a judicious observer to pronounce upon them with some certainty.
— Gilbert White
Letter (7 Aug 1778) to Daines Barrington, collected in The Natural History of Selborne (1829), 274.
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All the summer long is the swallow a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection; for, from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground, and exerting the most sudden turns and quick evolutions. Avenues, and long walks under hedges, and pasture-fields, and mown meadows where cattle graze, are her delight, especially if there are trees interspersed; because in such spots insects most abound. When a fly is taken a smart snap from her bill is heard, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch case; but the motion of the mandibles are too quick for the eye.
— Gilbert White
In Letter to Daines Barrington (29 Jan 1774), in In The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 169-170.
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But in nothing are swifts more singular than in their early retreat. They retire, as to the main body of them, by the tenth of August, and sometimes a few days sooner: and every straggler invariably withdraws by the twentieth, while their congeners, all of them, stay till the beginning of October; many of them all through that month, and some occasionally to the beginning of November. This early retreat is mysterious and wonderful, since that time is often the sweetest season in the year. But, what is more extraordinary, they begin to retire still earlier in the most southerly parts of Andalusia, where they can be no ways influenced by any defect of heat; or, as one might suppose, defect of food. Are they regulated in their motions with us by failure of food, or by a propensity to moulting, or by a disposition to rest after so rapid a life, or by what? This is one of those incidents in natural history that not only baffles our searches, but almost eludes our guesses!
— Gilbert White
In Letter to Daines Barrington, (28 Sep 1774), in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 278.
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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.
[Showing an early awareness in ecology.]
— Gilbert White
Letter XXXV, to Daines Barrington, (20 May 1777) in The Natural History of Selborne (1789), 216 and (1899), 174.
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I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy. From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript [not known to science]. They are much smaller and more slender than the mus domesticus medius of Ray; and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour ... They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves; abound in harvest, and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles.
[Part of his observations on the harvest mouse, which he was the first to describe as a new species.]
— Gilbert White
Letter XII (4 Nov 1767) in The Natural History of Selborne (1789, 1899), 31.
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It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.
— Gilbert White
In Letter to Thomas Pennant (4 Aug 1767), in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 27.
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It is curious to observe with what different degrees of architectonic skill Providence has endowed birds of the same genus, and so nearly correspondent in their general mode of life! for while the swallow and the house-martin discover the greatest address in raising and securely fixing crusts or shells of loam as cunabula for their young, the bank-martin terebrates a round and regular hole in the sand or earth, which is serpentine, horizontal, and about two feet deep. At the inner end of this burrow does this bird deposit, in a good degree of safety, her rude nest, consisting of fine grasses and feathers, usually goose-feathers, very inartificially laid together.
— Gilbert White
In Letter to Daines Barrington, (26 Feb 1774), in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 176.
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It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.
— Gilbert White
Letter XX to Thomas Pennant (8 Oct 1768), in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 55.
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Nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another.
— Gilbert White
In Letter VII, to Thomas Pennant, in The Natural History of Selborne (1789), 35.
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The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property. I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing; and, packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises. The rattle and hurry of the journey so perfectly roused it that, when I turned it out on a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden; however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried it-self in the loose mound, and continues still concealed … When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than two-thirds of its existence in joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.
— Gilbert White
In Letter to Daines Barrington, (21 Apr 1780) in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), 357.
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Trees are great promoters of lakes and rivers…; for, since the woods and forests have been grubbed and cleared, all bodies of water are much diminished; so that some streams, that were very considerable a century ago, will not now drive a common mill.
— Gilbert White
Letter (7 Feb 1776) to Daines Barrington, collected in The Natural History of Selborne (1813), Vol. 1, 348.
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Trees perspire profusely, condense largely, and check evaporation so much that woods are always moist: no wonder, therefore, that they contribute much to pools and streams.
— Gilbert White
Letter (7 Feb 1776) to Daines Barrington, collected in The Natural History of Selborne (1813), Vol. 1, 348.
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Quotes by others about Gilbert White (1)

Selborne is the secret, private parish inside each one of us.
Alluding to the Hampshire village of Selborne about which curate Gilbert White wrote A Natural History of Selborne, one of the most frequently published books in the English language.
The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (1976), 51.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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