Gilbert White's house, The Wakes
, now a museum, viewed from the back gardens in 2010
White was born in his grandfather's vicarage at Selborne in Hampshire. He was educated at the Holy Ghost School and by a private tutor in Basingstoke before going to Oriel College, Oxford. He obtained his deacon's orders in 1746, being fully ordained in 1749, and subsequently held several curacies in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Selborne's neighbouring parishes of Newton Valence and Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. In 1752/53 White held the office of Junior Proctor at Oxford and was Dean of Oriel. In 1757 he became non-resident perpetual curate of Moreton Pinkney in Northamptonshire. After the death of his father in 1758, White moved back into the family home at The Wakes in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death. Having studied at the more prestigious Oriel, at the behest of his uncle, he was ineligible to be considered for the permanent living of Selborne, which was in the gift of Magdalen College.
White is regarded by many as England's first ecologist, and one of those who shaped the modern attitude of respect for nature. He said of the earthworm:
Earthworms, 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...
White and William Markwick collected records of the dates of emergence of more than 400 plant and animal species, White recording in Hampshire and Markwick in Sussex between 1768 and 1793. These data, summarised in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne as the earliest and latest dates for each event over the 25-year period, are among the earliest examples of modern phenology.
American nature writer, Donald C. Peattie, writes in The Road of a Naturalist about White's contribution to the public interest in birds: "The bird census, now so widely promulgated by the Audubon Society, was the invention of Gilbert White; he was the original exponent, as far as I know, of the close seasonal observation of Nature, a branch of science known to the pedantic as phenology. He was the first to perceive the value in the study of migration (then a disputed fact) and of banding or ringing birds, though it was Audubon who first performed the experiment. No professional ornithologist ever did so much to widen interest in birds; from White's pages they cock a friendly eye at us, and hop out of his leaves right over our thresholds."
His 1783–84 diary corroborates the dramatic climatic impacts of the volcanic 'Laki haze' that spread from Iceland with lethal consequences across Europe.
Gilbert White's sister Anne was married to Thomas Barker (1722–1809), called 'The father of meteorology', and Gilbert maintained a correspondence with his nephew Samuel Barker, who also kept a naturalist's journal.