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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.

Gilbert White

The Church of St. Mary's, Selborne, where Gilbert White was curate
The Church of St. Mary's, Selborne, where Gilbert White was curate

Gilbert White was educated at Oriel College, Oxford, took holy orders in 1747, and became curate of his home town of Selborne in Southern England (1756).

He was a pioneering naturalist, regarded as England's first ecologist, who recorded his observations of nature drawn from life, rather than from knowledge gained in laboratory by examination of dead specimens. His own notes were supplemented by an exchange of letters with Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, two friends who were also naturalists.

His careful studies, from 1765 covered a wide range of natural history subjects around the parish. He detailed the flora, and the habits and lives of the local mammals, birds and insects. He published the collected work of about 20 years in a book in 1789, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. (Actually published in Dec. 1788 though given a 1789 date by his publisher, in order to make the book appear fresh for longer. This book has been in print continously since then, and is the fourth most published book in the English language.) The exact, but engagingly written, scientific descriptions of the commonplace creatures of the English countryside appealed to generations of homesick administrators of Empire.

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.” (1777)

For example, it was at Selborne in 1767 that Gilbert White first noticed that the harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), the smallest European mouse, with a body only two inches long, was a different species from other mice. In a letter to Thomas Pennant on Nov 4 that year, reproduced as part of his The Natural History of Selborne, he wrote:

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.

The harvest mouse nests in the longest grasses in meadows, in a tennis ball-sized nest. White was apparently the first to notice that the mouse closes up the hole in the side after it enters or leaves its nest. The mouse, whose Latin name Micromys minutus means “the smallest tiny mouse,” is so light that it can climb between grass stems using its two-inch prehensile tail, without touching the ground.

“The Wakes,” Gilbert White's home for most of his life
“The Wakes,” Gilbert White's home for most of his life

Sadly, the effects of agricultural intensification in modern Britain have greatly reduced the natural habitat for this endearing animal. However, the grounds of Gilbert White's house are now a museum, managed with conservation efforts in mind. In 1998, there was excitement to find that the otherwise increasingly rare harvest mouse had been discovered again nesting in the gardens.

Gilbert White inherited his house, The Wakes, from his uncle, Charles White, in March 1763. To the present day, the countryside around the village remains mostly unchanged from when White knew it in the 18th Century, and is now mainly owned by The National Trust. The Gilbert White House is now a museum preserving many of his items of furniture, possessions, and family portraits. The original manuscript for The Natural History of Selborne is on display. The garden is being restored to White's original designs. (White's House also contains a memorial to the Oates family, including relics and an account of Captain Lawrence Oates's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.)

Written by Webmaster in 2002, or earlier, referring at that time to sources that are now dead links. The quotes are from White's correspondence collected in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789, 1899), pg 31, 174.

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: 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) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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