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Gilbert [Gilberd], William

1. Dates
Born: Colchester, 1544 Until this century, Gilbert's birth was universally placed in 1540. 1544 has now been established on good evidence.
Died: probably London, 30 Nov. 1603
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 59
2. Father
Occupation: Magistrate
Jerome Gilbert was the recorder of Colchester. One source listed him as a merchant. Clearly his own forebears were merchants and made a fortune at it. None of the good sources says a word about Jerome Gilbert being a merchant.
Evidently prosperous.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: Englsih
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A., M.D.
St. John College, Cambridge, 1558-69 or 70; B.A., 1561; M.A., 1564; M.D., 1569.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
By assumption. He was buried in an Anglican church in Colchester.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Magnetism
Subordinate: Electricity, Natural Philosophy
De magnete, 1600, is the enduring basis of Gilbert's fame.
Posthumously, De mundo nostro sublunari philosophia nova was published in 1651. This is really two works put together as one from Gilbert's manuscripts by Gilbert's half brother; he himself never intended them as parts of one book. More than De magnete, the two treatises that make up De mundo strove toward a general natural philosophy.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine
Secondary: Academia, Personal Means, Patronage
At Cambridge he became a Junior Fellow of St. Johns in 1561. He was the mathematics examiner in the college, 1565-6 and bursar, 1569-70. He became a Senior Fellow in 1569.
Nothing is known about his activities from 1569 (or 70) until the mid or late 70s. There is good evidence that De magnete was completed quite a few years before it was published, and possibly Gilbert devoted these unknown years to his magnetical research. Something would have had to support him. He is known to have inherited property from his father, and it is possible that he inherited Wingfield House, his residence in London, from his step-mother (a Wingfield), sometime before 1583.
Medical practice, from perhaps 1577 to 1603. He was one of the prominent physicians in London, consulted among others by the aristocracy.
One of the personal physicians to Elizabeth I, 1600-03. He received a persion of L100 (which is hard to distinguish from a salary) from the Queen. Note that this relation to the court came only near the end of Gilbert's life.
Physician to James I, 1603.
8. Patronage
Type: Court Official
He obtained his grant of arms from Elizabeth in 1577.
He was appointed physician to Elizabeth in 1600 and kept the position until Elizabeth died.
After the death of Elizabeth he became James I's physician and held the position until his own death.
Note that Gilbert, a promient and probably wealthy physician, did not dedicate De magnete to anyone. On the contrary, it is dedicated to Gilbert by Edward Wright, who wrote the dedicatory epistle.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology, Navigation, Instruments
He participated in the compilation of the College of Physicians' Pharmacopoeia.
He specifically proposed the use of magnetic declination and dip to determine longitude and latitude. Thomas Blundevelle describes the two instruments of Gilbert's invention intended for these purposes.
The Versorium for magnetic investigations, and a similar device for electrical.
I considered briefly adding Cartography to this list because Gilbert did prepare a map of the moon (in De mundo). However, recall that this was before the telescope. I have seen the map. It is more a sketch than a map, and does not involve any of the skills of cartography.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Medical College
Informal Connections: He knew Thomas Wright and William Barlowe. The older literature on Gilbert abounds in stories of a proto-society that met in his home, Wingfield House. This has been shown to rest on no solid evidence whatever. The older literature also credits him with correspondence with Giovanfrancesco Sagredo (Galileo's friend and patron) and Paolo Sarpi. These correspondences are likewise figments of the imagination.
Royal College of Physicians, before 1581; Censor, 1581, 1582, 1584-87, 1589-90; Treasurer, 1587-94, 1597-99; Elector, 1596-97; Consilarius, 1597-9; President, 1600.
  1. Duane H.D. Roller, The DE MAGNETE of William Gilbert, (Amsterdam, 1959), pp. 50-91. QC751.G47R7. This is far and away the best source on Gilbert that I have found.
  2. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 7, 1217. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 4, 2202-3.
  3. William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1878), 1, 77-80.
  4. Suzanne Kelly, The De mundo of William Gilbert, (Amsterdam, 1965).
  5. Silvanus P. Thompson, Gilbert of Colchester; an Elizabethan Magnetizer, (London, 1891).
  6. Bern Dibner, Doctor William Gilbert, (New York, 1947).
  7. Rufus Suter, "A Biographical Sketch of Dr. William Gilbert of Colchester," Osiris, 10 (1952), 368-84.
  8. John Aikin, Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain from the Revival of Literature to the Time of Harvey, (London, 1780), pp. 175-81.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Charles Singer, "Dr. William Gilbert," Journal of the Royal Naval Medical Service, Oct. 1916.
  2. Richard H. Jarrell, "The Latest Date of Composition of Gilbert's De mundo," Isis, 63 (1972), 94-5.
  3. There is a surprising dearth of information about this prominent scientist.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
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