Born on 20th of July 1720
Died on 26th of June 1793
The clergyman Gilbert White proved that the quiet observer can be as valuable to science as the great thinkers and innovators. Though, in his own way, White was an innovator, his painstaking and elegantly expressed recording of the natural life in his home parish of Selborne in Hampshire leading to a new way of looking at and appreciating the natural world – to the extent that he is regarded by many as the first British ecologist.
White was born in Selborne on July 20 1720 in the house he would occupy for most of his life, for though he briefly aspired to an academic career after taking his degree at Oriel, and was for a time Junior Proctor in Oxford and Dean of Oriel, he was destined to be a country parson. ‘The Wakes’ was his grandfather’s vicarage, inherited eventually by Gilbert in 1763 after his father’s ownership.
He was curate at Selborne on several occasions (as an Oriel man ineligible for the Magdalen-controlled permanent living there); with other periods spent in the same post at Farringdon and Newton Valence nearby, thus able from 1754 to live in the family home. From 1784 until his death on June 26 1793 he held the curacy of Selborne for the fourth time.
Never marrying, White passed much of his ample spare time in observing the wildlife in his district, recording it in his diary and in letters to his fellow naturalists Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. It is these letters that form the core of his one work, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. In another’s hands such a work could be a dull and flimsy exercise, but White’s elegant and poetic writing, and his detailed and accurate observations, make it both science and art together. He spotted the interactions of animals and their environment, content to focus on the minutiae of his narrow patch: “Every kingdom, every province should have its own monographer,” he wrote.
His book was a perhaps unlikely hit upon its publication (by his brother’s firm) in 1788, influential in its language for the Romantic poets as well as a gem of natural history, and it has never been out of print since. ‘The Wakes’ is now a museum where objects like White’s original manuscript can be seen.
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