Born in the beautiful Hampshire village of Selborne in 1720, Gilbert White was educated in Basingstoke before going to Oriel College, Oxford. He followed his grandfather and uncle into the Church and had a distinguished career as a Fellow of Oriel. In 1746 he was ordained a deacon and became curate for his Uncle Charles who was vicar in the neighbouring Hampshire village of Farringdon, before his full ordination on 1749. Later he became curate of the Selborne parish, as well as taking up other similar posts, some local, some not.
A keen gardener from his youth, White increasingly took a close interest in the natural world around him, and grew a wide range of traditional and experimental fruit and vegetables. He was the first person in this area to grow potatoes for example, and it was this keen, enquiring interest in gardening that led him to begin his first written work, of recording methodically what he sowed and reaped, the weather, temperature and other details. This he went on to call his ‘Garden Kalendar’.
It is of course White’s later work ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’for which he is best known. It began as correspondence between himself and other like-minded gentlemen of the time, The Hon. Daines Barrington and Thomas Pennant, where they discussed their observations and theories about local flora, fauna and wildlife. White believed in studying living birds and animals in their natural habitat which was an unusual approach at that time, as most naturalists preferred to carry out detailed examinations of dead specimens in the comfort of their studies. White was thus the first to distinguish the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler as three separate species, largely on the basis of their different songs, and the first to describe accurately the harvest mouse and the noctule bat.
‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’ was published in 1789, just four years before White’s death, by his brother Benjamin, who was a publisher. Since that time it has never been out of print, is reported to be one of the most published books in the English language as well as being translated into several other languages. White now has the reputation of being ‘the first ecologist’.