(b. Selborne, Hampshire, England, 18 July 1720; d. Selborne, 26 June 1793), zoology, botany, horticulture.
Edmund Gosse, the distinguished poet and 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.”
White was the eldest son of John White and Anne Holt, daughter of a wealthy clergyman from Streatham, south London. After preliminary schooling in Farnham and then at Basingstoke, he entered Oriel College, Oxford, where he received the B.A. in 1743. White then spent another year at Oxford prior to his election as fellow, finally taking the master’s degree in October 1746. He received deacon’s orders the following year and became curate at Swarraton, the parish of his uncle, the Reverend Charles White. Three years later White was ordained a priest by the bishop of Hereford, but, not being ambitious for a clerical career nor anxious to move far from Selborne, where his parents had made the family home, he refused all preferments offered him except that at Moreton Pink–ney, Northamptonshire, a living belonging to and offered by his won college at Oxford. It provided him with a steady income but did not require him to reside within its boundaries, as it was administered by the curate from the next parish. This situation left White free to accept the curacy at Selvacant, borne or of a nearby parish whenever one was vacant thus permitting his continued stay at the family home, “the wakes” –a large house in the center of Selborne village (later bequeathed to him through his uncle)–and to indulge his pursuit of the study of natural history.
It was in his study at “The Wakes” that White entered in diary form daily notes on natural phenomena observed in the garden and during walks that took him into the countryside near Selborne or into adjacent parishes. Much of this material was shared in letters to his many correspondents, in particular with the zoologist Thomas Pennant and with the Honorable Daines Barrington, a well–to–do barrister and keen amateur naturalist. Despite repeated requests by Pennant and others, diffidence prevented White from being persuaded to edit his letters and have them issued in book form until four years before his death, when a selection of a lifetime of observations was published as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. The work not only has become a classic of the English literature of the eighteenth century but also has inspired many a tyto in the study of natural history. It has been published in about 200 English editions and reprints and been translated into several foreign languages.
The Natural History makes abundantly clear how intense was White’s interest in bird life. Unlike many contemporary ornithologists, who confined themselves to studying avian anatomy or to describing plumage, White made detailed notes on bird habits and habitats. He was the first to recognize the difference between the three British Phylloscopi (leaf warblers), previously considered as a single species first described by Linnaeus. The plumage is almost identical, but White pointed out that their songs are quite different. He also devoted much time to studying the habits of the nightjar; the parasitical egg–laying of the cuckoo in another species’ nest; and whether swallows migrated or hibernated in Britain. Satisfactory explanations of the life styles of both cuckoo and swallow were not put forward until long after White’s day. He conjectured that the domestic pigeon stemmed from the blue rock pigeon and not, as had been thought, from either the wood pigeon or the stock dove. This hypothesis was later elaborated by Charles Darwin as part of his marshaling of his marshaling of evidence bearing on his theory of evolution.
White also was the first to recognize Britain’s smallest mammal–the harvest mouse–and he added the noctule bat to the British list, although it had earlier been described by Daubenton on the Continent. In the reptilian kingdom White’s observations on a pet tortoise named Timothy are best known, although he drew attention to the fact that the blindworm could not be a snake because it produced viviparous young. He also noted many aspects of insect biology, his observations on the habits of the field, house, and mole crickets being his most significant contribution to entomology.
White recorded many species of wild flowers found around Selborne and kept phenological notes each year on their times of flowering and seeding. He was also a keen gardener, as is evident from his manuscript “Garden Kalender” and his “Naturalist’s Journal,” some entries from which were finally incorporated in the Natural history. He also noted various aspects of local agriculture, folk life, weather lore, and even archaeology and astronomy. In fact, few facets of natural phenomena observable around Selborne escaped White’s attention, although wider issues affecting the country as a whole drew no comment from him. White was not unaware of the suffering brought about by wars and the industrial revolution, especially among the poor, for after his death many local inhabitants vouched for his manifold kindness and understanding. It was perhaps, rather, that he felt that in the study of natural history he could give of his best: and thus his environment at Selborne became increasingly the center of his world.
Why, then, has a single published volume written by a country cleric developed in generations of its readers so much happiness from studying natural history or engendered within them an undeniable love for the countryside? The answer has best been crystallized in the words of another zoologist, L. C. Miall. written in 1901 but nevertheless still true. Of White he wrote:
…his personal knowledge of nature was great not in relation to knowledge accumulated in books but in comparison with the direct experience of most other naturalists of any age. Here is the one great difference between him and the imitators who have hoped to succeed by mere picturesque writing. 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.
White died a bachelor at the age of seventy-two. He willed that his grave in St. Mary’s churchyard, Selborne, should not be elaborate. In keeping with his wishes and his unpretentious nature, its plain headstone bears the simple inscription “G. W. June 26, 1793.”
I. Original Works. White’s fame stems from his one book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (London. 1789: facs. repr., Menston, 1970). Many eds. of this work have appeared, some with footnotes that have enhanced the original text,or with copious illustrations. Others have included further material extracted from White’s MSS or have given details of his life. The three best are those by Thomas Bell, 2 vols. (London, 1877): R.Bowdler Sharpe, 2 vols. (London–Philadelphia, 1900); and Grant Allen (London–New York, 1900). All eds. published up to 1930 have been collated by E. A. Martin in his Bibliography of Gilbert White (London, 1934; repr. Folkestone-London, 1970).
Of White’s other MS material, his “Garden Kalender” was publishedin vol. II of R. Bowdler Sharpe’s ed.(see above): the “Calender of Flora. 1766” was published in facs. by the Selborne Society, edited with notes by W. M. Webb (London, 1911): and a further selection from White’s “Naturalist’s Journal” was edited by W. Johnson and published as Zilbert White’s Journals (London, 1931: repr. Newton Abbot. Devon, 1970).
II. Secondary Literature. Rashleigh Holt White. The Lite and Letters of Gilbert White, 2 vols. (London, 1901), should be consulted by those who wish to know more of his correspondence and MSS . Two other texts of value are Rev. Walter Sidney Scott, White of Selborne (London, 1950): and W. Johnson, Gilbert White: Pioneer, Poet and Stylist (London, 1928). C. S. Emden, Gilbert White in His Village (London, 1956), and Anthony Rye, Gilbert White and His Selborne (London, 1970), both accounts of his life and times, may also be useful.
Eric W. Groves
American Geographer 1911–
Gilbert F. White is an internationally renowned geographer who received the National Academy of Science's Public Welfare Medal in 2000 for his lifelong work to improve water supplies worldwide and to protect people from flood hazards .
White received his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral (Ph.D.) degrees from the University of Chicago. From a Quaker background, White became a conscientious objector to military service during World War II under the American Friends Service Committee. He assisted children and refugees in France and was detained by the Nazis for a year in Germany.
Contributions to Flood Control
Gilbert White's dissertation has been called the most influential ever written by an American geographer. White studied a more holistic approach to flood control than the popular methods of the time. He developed his innovative ideas of flood control while working for the Mississippi Valley Committee in the 1930s and as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the early 1940s.
In 1945, White's dissertation research was published as a book titled Human Adjustments to Floods. The book argued that rather than trying to control floods with levees and reservoirs, society might find it more effective to avoid developing floodplains or to find more productive uses for them such as planting certain crops or as recreational areas. White is known as the "father of floodplain management " for the body of work he developed from this research.
Additional Research and Service
After receiving his Ph.D., White became the president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, the first college founded by the Quakers. In 1955, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he chaired the Department of Geography and was active in many research and public service projects. During the 1950s, he worked to bring diplomats from the East and West together in Switzerland to ease Cold War tensions. From 1963 to 1969 he chaired the American Friends Service Committee.
In 1970, White moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he served as director of the Institute of Behavioral Science, and where he established the Natural Hazards Research Applications and Information Center. This Natural Hazards Center brought together researchers from various disciplines to study natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes, and volcanoes, and their mitigation. The center helped improve the interdisciplinary communication between geographers, economists, geologists, hydrologists, and others, and influenced the course of research in the profession. White also served as the president of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), and chaired the steering committee for their High School Geography Project, working to improve geography education efforts throughout the United States.
White retired from the Natural Hazards Center in 1984, and remains the Gustavson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Colorado. As of 2002, he continued to travel and work to develop water plans throughout the world.
Contributions to International Collaboration
Gilbert White's most important work was done in collaboration with his wife, Anne, and David Bradley. They studied thirty sites in East Africa, investigating the water-gathering practices of local people to gain information about the costs of time, energy, money, and health. Until their book, Drawers of Water, was published in 1972, no researchers had studied the decision-making processes of people in developing countries where 60 percent of populations obtain their water by going some distance to draw it and then carry it to where it is needed. This study changed government perspectives toward the quantity and quality of water provided for poorer people in their countries.
White has spent over 60 years working for improved water resources management. He has made significant contributions in promoting international collaboration. During the 1960s and 1970s, White campaigned for a water resources management plan for Asia's lower Mekong basin and his efforts kept North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia negotiating their water plan even after fighting in the region had begun.
In the early 1980s, White served as the president of SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment) and spearheaded a landmark report in 1985 on the environmental effects of nuclear war that reflected the consensus of over three hundred scientists from thirty countries.
Influence on Environmental Policies
White's career has greatly influenced the development of the world's modern environmental consciousness. White has long called for researchers to conduct post-audits to study the actual effects of environmental policies that are implemented.
In 1979, along with Mostafa Tolba (then head of the United Nations Environmental Programme), White issued a declaration suggesting that human activity might cause a change in global climate. He participated in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In 1999, he headed a committee to make policy recommendations to alleviate conflict over water resources in the Middle East. In 2000, White was given the prestigious Millennium Award of the International Water Resources Association in recognition of his outstanding lifelong contributions to both the theory and practice of water resources management around the world.
see also Developing Countries, Issues in; Floodplain Management; Planning and Management, Water Resources.
White, Gilbert F. Human Adjustments to Flood. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1945.
White, Gilbert F., David Bradley, and Anna U. White. 1972. Drawers of Water: Domestic Water Use in East Africa. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Association of American Geographers. Washington, D.C. <http://www.aag.org/>.
Association of State Floodplain Managers. <http://www.floods.org/>.
The National Academies. <http://www.nas.edu/>.
The Natural Hazards Center. University of Colorado, Boulder. <http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/>.
A. S. Hargreaves