Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.

JUNE 26th

On this day in history in 1793, died Gilbert White.

White was a clergyman, naturalist and ornithologist, who wrote the first English classical work on natural history.

Gilbert White was born on 18th July 1720, at his grandfather’s vicarage in Selborne, now a museum in his honour [Gilbert Whites House and Gardens, The Wakes, High Street, Selborne, Hampshire, GU34 3JH]. He was educated at the local grammar school before matriculating at Oriel College, Oxford. At school, he was considered dull, as he preferred to pass his time in the local fields, observing the splendour of nature, rather than attending to scholarly endeavour. At Oxford, he excelled at neither Classics nor law, but was moderately passable at theology, and after graduation was ordained in 1749.

In 1751, White took up a curacy in West Dean, Wiltshire, where he mentioned in his diary how lonely he felt, away from his family and home in Selbourne. He took a short break in Vauxhall, London, then a popular pleasure garden, where he remarked on the fruit trees, the ‘wild tangles of bushes’ and natural wildlife. In 1752, he contrived to obtain the curacy of Selbourne, and made his grateful journey home.

At Selbourne, his pastoral duties were not unduly onerous and he found time to write a journal, in which he noted observations made in his garden. In 1758, after the death of his father, he moved back to The Wakes, now in the possession of his uncle, where he continued to record the results of his scrutiny of local flora and fauna. He maintained a continuing correspondence with Thomas Pennant, one of the leading zoologists of the time, and with Daines Barrington, a lawyer and recreational zoologist, and member of the Royal Society. His letters show not only his enthusiasm for his subject matter, but also his keen observation of species. He believed in distinguishing species by observation, rather than simply collecting and dissecting specimens, and was able to distinguish species of birds by their song rather than their outward characteristics. His observations are noted for their simplicity, yet accuracy and clarity. He said of the earthworm that ‘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.’

In 1763, White inherited his uncle’s property including The Wakes and the family tortoise, Timothy, then 46 years old and a native of Virginia. White conducted several through but humane experiments on this creature, calculating its hearing capacity and its weight loss after hibernation. In 1789, he published the results of his life’s work in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, which was greeted with the acclaim of major naturalists, who commented favourably on his methodical approach and keen sense of observation. This famous work is now considered the first realistic attempt to develop the study of natural history as a science, and has been continuously in print since its first publication.

White died on 26th June 1793, and is buried in his home village of Selbourne. [St Mary’s Church Selborne, Alton, Hampshire GU34 3JQ] His collection of specimens, including Timothy’s shell, can be seen in the Gilbert White Collection at the Natural History Museum. [Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD. Admission free]

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