Gilbert White, the “First Ecologist,” Born (1720)

            The man often called “the first ecologist” is Gilbert White, British clergyman, gardener and naturalist, born July 18, 1720 (died 1793).  White lived most of his adult life in the English village of Selborne in the county of Hampshire, about an hour south of London.  He was educated at Oxford and was ordained in 1749, soon to become the vicar of Selborne.

Gilbert White

            White was an ardent gardener and gained an early reputation as a keen observer of the environmental factors that impacted cultivated crops.  He published a calendar of his observations that became a guide for farmers and gardeners in the region.  He loved animals and kept a menagerie, including a pet tortoise named Timothy.

            His true legacy, however, has come from his similar keen observations of nature itself.  Unlike naturalists of his time, who mostly examined dead specimens of animals in order to describe their appearance, White focused on living animals and their interactions with others and their environment—hence his recognition as the first ecologist.  For example, he differentiated three species of birds based on their songs and behavior, presaging the work of Charles Darwin in the next century.  Despite being a clergyman, he didn’t shrink from the realities of the natural world:

Gilbert White’s study, looking out over his farm (photo by Larry Nielsen)

“As the swift or black-martin is the largest of the British hirundines, so is it undoubtedly the latest comer. For I remember but one instance of its appearing before the last week in April: and in some of our late frosty, harsh springs, it has not been seen till the beginning of May. This species usually arrives in pairs…. If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see, every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek. This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on.”

Gilbert White’s book on natural history (photo by Larry Nielsen)

            Over a period of twenty years, he recorded his observations in a series of letters to fellow naturalists.  With the help of his brother, he compiled 110 of those letters into a book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789.  The book instantly became a classic of natural history.  It has remained in print continuously since then, in more than 300 editions, and is said to be the fourth most published book in England (after The Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Pilgrim’s Progress)

            White’s home in Selborne, The Wakes, is now a National Trust Property in England.

References:

Come Step Back In Time (blog).  2013.  Gilbert White—The Parson Naturalist of Selborne, Hampshire.  Available at:  https://comestepbackintime.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/gilbert-white-the-parson-naturalist-of-selborne-hampshire/.  Accessed July 18, 2017.

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Gilbert White, English Naturalist and Clergyman.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gilbert-White-English-naturalist-and-clergyman. Accessed July 18, 2017.

Gilbert White House & The Oates Collection.  The Reverend Gilbert White 1720-1793.  Available at:  http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/Gilbert-White/. Accessed July 18, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

July 1
Duck Stamp Born (1934)
July 2
Morrill Act Created Land-Grant Universities (1862)
July 3
Great Auk Went Extinct (1844)
July 4
Stephen Mather, Founding Director of the National Park Service, Born (1867)
July 5
Yoshimaro Yamashina and Ernst Mayr, Ornithologists, Born (1900, 1904)
July 6
Maria Martin, Naturalist and Artist, Born (1796)
July 7
Alaska Admitted as a State (1958)
July 8
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July 9
Starbucks Abandoned Plastic Straws (2018)
July 10
Rainbow Warrior Bombed and sunk (1985)
July 11
World Population Day
July 12
Herbert Zim, Creator of “Golden Guides,” Born (1909)
July 13
Source of the Mississippi River Discovered (1832)
July 14
George Washington Carver National Monument Established (1943)
July 15
Emmeline Pankhurst, British Suffragette Leader, Born (1858)
July 16
UNESCO Added Giant Panda and Shark Sanctuaries to World Heritage List (2006)
July 17
Handel’s “Water Music” Premiered (1717)
July 18
Gilbert White, the “First Ecologist,” Born (1720)
July 19
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, Created (1976)
July 20
Gregor Mendel, Pioneering Geneticist, Born (1822)
July 21
Aswan High Dam Opened (1970)
July 22
Ratcatcher’s Day
July 23
Commercial Whaling Banned (1982)
July 24
Machu Picchu Discovered (1911)
July 25
Jim Corbett, Tiger Conservationist, Born (1875)
July 26
James Lovelock, Originator of the Gaia Theory, Born (1919)
July 27
Przewalski’s horse gave birth by artificial insemination (2013)
July 28
Beatrix Potter, Author and Conservationist, Born (1866)
July 29
International Tiger Day
July 30
Golden Spike National Historical Park Created (1965)
July 31
Curt Gowdy, Sportscaster and Conservationist, Born (1919)
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