Gilbert White - Britain's Most Underrated Scientist?

English curate Gilbert White was one of the world's first naturalists. He is best known for his book 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne' (the Antiquities bit usually gets dropped), published in 1789. This book was a major influence on Charles Darwin. It was almost certainly a major influence on Darwin's genius grandfather Erasmus Darwin, as well as Henslow, Hooker, Wallace and countless others. Some say that, until recently, it was the most published non-fiction book in the world. Others claim that it proves Gilbert White was the world's first modern field biologist and that he invented the sciences of ecology, ethology and phenology.

If all this is so, Gilbert White must be one of Britain's greatest scientists, as well as one of our most momentous and - considering that hardly anyone has heard of him - the most underrated. We re-read his book then visited Selborne to verify his bona fides.

2020 is the 300th anniversary of Gilbert White's birth. His home, 'The Wakes', has had a major overhaul to celebrate. We intented to revisit it and update this blog accordingly. Coronavirus has scuppered this plan. We hope to get there as soon as it reopens.

Gilbert White's momentousness

In the 18th century, Natural History was like stamp collecting; listing, describing, drawing and classifying, only with plants and animals instead of bits of printed paper. Gilbert White was among those who moved the science forward, by pioneering the study of animal behaviour in the wild.

White had a specific technique: He studied nature in the same place over a long period of time. The place was Selborne in Hampshire, where he lived and worked. The time was most of his adult life. He did this in parallel with maintaining a meticulous diary of weather and local wildlife events, such as when migrating birds appeared and when certain flowers came into bloom. He wrote letters about interesting findings to his naturalist friends. The Natural History of Selborne is a collection of these letters, collated and published by his brother Benjamin.

Gilbert White was open minded, active and inquisitive, studying whatever piqued his interest. He referred to his field work as 'observing narrowly', by which he meant that he watched the same place for many hours noting what happened in minute detail. His predecessors were mainly desk bound. White gently chastised them: "The investigation of the life and conversation of animals is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive".

White took notes almost every day, mostly about what he saw in his garden and the surrounding woodlands. On the occasions he had to leave Selborne, he would write about his observations on the way; peacocks one day, Chinese Edible Dogs the next. His descriptions are evocative, engaging, accurate and interesting. Zoologist L C Miall wrote in 1901: "White is interesting because nature is interesting: his descriptions are founded upon natural fact, exactly observed and sagaciously interpreted. Very few of his observations … need correction more than a hundred years after his death". The same was true 100 years later, and still.

In the course of his observations, White discovered that the wood warbler, chiffchaff and willow warbler (left to right on image above) were different species, even though they can look virtually identical. He was the first to describe accurately the field mouse and noctule bat. He was the first person to propose that birds could be ringed to better understand their migration and breeding patterns.

Despite being a curate at a time when virtually everyone believed in teleology, White distanced himself from God's influence. He speculated, for instance, that animal instinct was the faculty to: "respect self-preservation, or lead at once to the propagation or support of their species". This is not only a major advance on the God-centred theory of Natural Theology that was prevalent at the time, but half way to Natural Selection, 100 years before Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.

As with nearly all our investigations, the claims made about White's achievements are not straightforward. Let's start with 'World's first modern field biologist' and 'Father of Ethology'. Ethology is the study of animal behaviour in their natural habitat. This is what Gilbert White did every day of his adult life. Most of his predecessors, as we say above, were either deskbound or participating in a naturalist version of stamp collecting. There was one notable exception in Austrian naturalist Ferdinand Pernau.

Pernau wrote about animal behaviour before White was born. His essays included accurate theories of bird song, homing, migration and chick rearing. True, his birds were bred in captivity and most of his observations were made in an aviary. But they were not captive. They could come and go at will. And he did study some birds in the wild.

Pernau seldom ventured into the field. The title 'World's first modern field biologist' has to go to White. Pernau has a stronger claim to be the 'Father of ethology', but it is supposed to apply to observations made in natural habitats. We think White deserves the title more.

What then of 'Father of Ecology'? Ecology is the study of the interaction of organisms with their environment. White wrote about it regularly. He was the first to write about what we would now refer to as an ecosystem. However, he treated his findings as individual observations without putting them into context. German Ernst Haeckel and Dane Eugenius Warming pulled together the various strands into what we now know as the science of ecology.

Haekel and Warming would probably both have read The Natural History of Selborne and had perhaps been inspired by it to build careers in natural science. But White was not a professional scientist. His factual contribution to their work was negligible. Warming certainly overlooks it when he said that the Danish version of Oecology of Plants was the first ever attempt to write about 'oecology'. White may well have been the first modern ecologist, but the science of ecology derives from Warning. We think Warming best deserves the epithet 'Father of Ecology'.

Phenology is the study of cyclical events in nature, usually associated with the seasons and/or climate. Again, this is what Gilbert White did for most of his adult life. English naturalist Robert Marsham was doing something similar at the same time. Marsham's 'Indications of Spring' and White's The Natural History of Selborne were both published in 1789. Both had been pre-empted by Sir Christopher Wren, who had proposed building a nationwide 'database' (he referred to it as a diary) to correlate natural events against cyclical weather variations 100 years earlier. Wren had also invented the meteorological equipment needed to make it work. Which of the three has precedence?

It is clear to us that Wren invented the science of phenology. But, as with many of his brilliant ideas, he never put it into practice. Marsham was a fellow of the Royal Society. We suspect that the impetus for his work came from the Royal Society's records of Wren's proposal. Marsham started making phenological recordings before White left University. He recorded more events for longer and his database was augmented by his children and their descendants for another 100 years. It is the base data for phenologists, still in use today. But White published first (his letters were made public long before they were collated into a book) and he interpreted his findings whereas Marsham was just building a database. They advised each other, so there is an overlap in what they did. Hmmm, White may well have been the first phenologist, but we think that the modern science of phenology derives from Marsham. We think that Marsham most deserves the epithet 'Father of Phenology'.

Data on pre-20th century book sales is scant. We doubt that it will ever be possible to prove, but it is plausible that the The Natural History of Selborne was, until fairly recently, the world's most published non-fiction book. Being 'most published' in this sense has nothing to do with total sales, where The Natural History of Selborne is unremarkable. It means the number of editions and reprints. The Natural History of Selborne scores well because it is 250 years old, narrative rather than factual, timeless, much-translated, interesting and fun. By our reckoning, it was overtaken in the 1990s by Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and Dale Carnegie's 'How to win friends and influence people'. Given the subsequent collapse of the publishing industry, we suspect it may remain in third position forever.

Woodcut illustrations from The Natural History of Selborne by Eric Ravilious

Despite all the accolades that are given to Gilbert White, in our opinion, his most important achievement was to make natural history relevant to regular people. His biographer Richard Mabey says that: "Gilbert White’s book, more than any other, has shaped our everyday view of the relations between humans and nature". The Natural History of Selborne is engaging, charming and innocent fun. Even today it is a good read. It is like an 18th century version of Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals'. Edmund Gosse, the literary critic, wrote, "The literature of the 18th century has left us no model of innocence, delicacy and alert natural piety more perfect than was the spirit of Gilbert White of Selborne … a man who has done more than any other to reconcile science with literature".

We are sure that The Natural History of Selborne inspired generations of readers to respect the environment and that it has inspired countless readers, including some nascent superstars, to become naturalists, whether as a profession or as a hobby. Darwin and Wallace must have been among those that read and were inspired by The Natural History of Selborne. Darwin even visited Selborne in June 1857 to pay homage to White (although this might have been prompted by his wife, who was related to White).

Gilbert White's achievements are difficult to assess. He made no monumental discoveries. He had no direct proteges or disciples. His methods are used by every field biologist, but not because of him; they are just a sensible way of working in the field. He would be just one influence among many on Darwin and Wallace. We are convinced that they would still have discovered evolution and natural selection if Gilbert White had never lived. We are convinced that the sciences of Ecology, Ethology and Phenology would not have been significantly delayed or devalued without his contribution.

Considering that hardly anyone has heard of him, Gilbert White may well be Britain's most underrated scientist. He is nowhere near the Premier League of British Scientists. He is more momentous than great, because he influenced countless aspiring naturalists to take up the profession. We feel that he deserves three momentousness medals.

Gilbert White Tour

Gilbert White was born in the vicarage at Selborne, a small village in north Hampshire. It is now a private residence (above) that does not encourage visitors. He lived there until he was seven, when his family moved a hundred yards to 'The Wakes' (below). Apart from two absences for education and a brief stint as a novice curate in Farringdon, he lived in this house for the rest of his life.

White went to school at 'The Holy Ghost School' which was housed in the 'Holy Ghost Chapel' off Chapel Hill in Basingstoke. Its ruins are still there (above). As a clever and inquisitive adolescent from a comfortably wealthy family, White went to Oriel College Oxford. He graduated BA in 1743 and MA in 1746. Records of his time there are kept in the college library but are not on show. Some of them can be seen in the BBC documentary linked below (when it is available).

Gilbert White is often described as a 'parson naturalist', which seems to have been fairly common in the 18th century. Bill Bryson has a whole Chapter about them - including White - in his book 'At Home'. White was ordained as a Deacon at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford in 1747 then posted as curate to Farringdon where his Uncle Charles was vicar. He was fully ordained in 1749 and appointed curate-in-charge at St Mary's Selborne (above) in 1751.

The posting conveniently allowed him to move back into The Wakes, then owned by his Uncle Charles. Several other curate positions were to follow in Selborne and elsewhere, although White's dislike of coach travel meant that he usually worked from the The Wakes, sending instructions by post.

All this while he continued a successful academic career as Fellow of Oriel then Junior Proctor (a sort of college policeman). He coveted the prestigious role of college Provost (sort of CEO) but lost out in the 1758 election for the job. As the new Provost was effectively appointed for life, White was forced to pursue other interests.

Following the the death of his father in 1759, White settled into bucolic life with his Uncle Charles at The Wakes (above). Gilbert White and Charles White were both single. In 1763 Charles died and Gilbert inherited The Wakes. He spent the rest of his life here. It is now a public museum. It is known as 'Gilbert White's House' on brown street signs, or as 'Gilbert White & the Oates Collections' when you arrive. Our last visit was before recent its £2.5m refurbishment. We will go back when we can.

Selborne is not an easy place to get to, especially on public transport. There are no train services within miles and there is a limited bus service. We parked behind the Selborne Arms pub, some 200m south-east of The Wakes. There is a map at the corner of the car park with directions. On our last visit we were pleased to find that Selborne is no longer in a mobile phone blackspot, although the signal is not great. Regardless, there is free WiFi within the house. The museum is open on Fridays and weekends during the Winter, and every day except Mondays the rest of the year. They accept Art Passes for a 50% discount.

Upon inheriting The Wakes White immediately set about extending and re-purposing the grounds. He was an enthusiastic, diligent and adventurous gardener. He built a herb garden, a kitchen garden, a field garden and a brew house where he made his own beer and wine. He liked to grow and eat unusual herbs and exotic plants. Perhaps he received some tips from botanist Joseph Banks who he met just before Banks set out on Cook's expedition to the Pacific. Some of White's more exotic plants, including his favourite melons, were grown in manure-fuelled hot-boxes. In order to keep wildlife away from his precious fruit and vegetables, he built a couple of hahas. And, in a misguided attempt to 'keep up the Jones' on the cheap, he built a miserable two-dimensional wooden statue of Hercules.

One of White's little known sidelines was to promote the cultivation and consumption of potatoes. Even though the potato had been introduced to Britain in the 16th century, hardly anyone ate them because they are in the nightshade family, poisonous unless cooked. White knew they were safe when cooked. He grew potatoes, ate them regularly and encouraged others to do the same. It is feasible that they would never have become a British staple without his encouragement.

White's garden fell into disuse after his death. It has been restored over recent years, from notes he made in his Garden Kalendar. It is not exactly as it was, because the lawn is needed for other lucrative purposes, most notably weddings. However, they have made a good fist of it. White had a 'six quarters' kitchen garden where the lawn now stands. The design has stayed the same but it has moved. They also switched the herbs and vegetables for other plants that are mentioned in Garden Kalendar. Now it is seasonal, with each segment having plants that grow in one season. The vegetable garden has been populated with 18th century varieties, including the famous potatoes that White helped to popularise. The two hahas are there. As are the manure fuelled hot-beds, used to grow exotic fruit. The gardens are tranquil, interesting and, hearsay has it (we went in winter), colourful in summer.

Beyond the garden is a steep beech covered hill known as 'The Hanger'. White installed a zig-zag path up the slope, like a miniature Alpe d'Huez. He built two picnic shacks at the top. It is still very beautiful. The wood has been seeded with treasure for children to find in various games.

We won't say much about the inside of The Wakes, because we hear that it has changed out of all recognition during the refurbishment. As with most Lottery funded refurbishments, we understand that it has been made more informative and child-friendly. These were certainly weaknesses when we were there. On other hand, it made the building feel homely and quaint. We will reserve judgement until we can revisit.

What will not have changed is that the display spaces are shared between Gilbert White and Captain Oates. Children preferred the Oates part. Adults preferred the White part. We enjoyed the rustic cafe and sparklingly clean Heath Robinson toilets. We bet they were replaced during renovation.

We hoped to find out more about White's character. The Wikipedia portrait is the only record of how he looked and even that is questionable. From his letters he comes across as an intelligent, broad minded, humble and unassuming man. His university ledgers imply that he was a fairly normal socially active student. He was small (5' 2"/153cm) and slender. According to a poem written about him by a friend, his face was covered in smallpox scars from an infection he contracted soon after graduating. As far as anyone knows, he never had a romantic relationship, with anyone of either sex. His favourite relationships were with his many nephews and nieces, and his pets, especially Timothy his tortoise. We were a little disappointed. We came away having learned virtually nothing about the man.

The Wakes has two treasures that we presume still to be in the Great Parlour. One is the original manuscript of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Not only is this a lovely document but it was purchased in 1980 with the very first grant ever made by the National Heritage Memorial Fund (a useful fact for the pub quiz perhaps). The other is a cabinet containing hundreds of copies of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, including at least one of every edition in every language. The entire collection was generously donated by Ronald Davidson-Houston, a former publisher, in 2010.

Having never previously seen lots of editions of the same book next to each other like this, we were interested in how different countries bind their books and print on the spine. It seems that the English speaking countries and Scandinavians print their spines from top to bottom - i.e. head tilting right to read the title - whereas the rest of Europe prints from bottom to top. Weird.

The Great Parlour sometimes displays special editions of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. In 2014 the museum acquired an exquisite first edition bound by the great Robert Riviere, book-binder to Queen Victoria, which was bought with V&A, Arts Council and locally raised funds. It has a particularly beautiful and rare fore-edge painting of the Plestor in Selborne,  which is still clearly recognisable by just stepping out the front door. This and other special editions are displayed only very occasionally. The dates are on their website.

Before leaving Selborne, if you have time, cross the road to St Mary's Church. Not only is it ancient (Norman origin), but it has the stump of the Selborne Yew (one of the Britain's Fifty Great Trees) and it has some interesting medieval artefacts. One day we hope to give the church an entire entry.

For Gilbert White enthusiasts, the main interest is a dedication plaque on the south chancel wall, and two lovely stained glass windows. The Gilbert White Memorial Window installed in 1993 depicts three scenes from White's book. The St Francis Window installed in the 1920s depicts St Francis preaching in, ahem, Selborne village surrounded by all 82 of the species mentioned in White's book. We only found about 20 of them before we spotted the handy guide below. When the sun is shining both are stunning works of relatively modern stained glass. Gilbert White's grave and headstone, for those interested in such things, are well signposted, leading to the outside north chancel wall.

Two other places of interest to Gilbert White fans are the British Library which holds the original manuscript of Garden Kalendar and the Natural History Museum in London which holds the remains of Timothy the tortoise. As far as we know, neither of these treasures is regularly on display. Needless to say, Timothy turned out to be a girl, so perhaps White was not as good a field naturalist as we try to make out.

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"Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne" by Richard Mabey, ISBN-13: 978-1861978073.

BBC Documentary: Gilbert White The Nature Man - not currently available

Project Gutenberg EPUB of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne