John White (surgeon)

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John White
John White, surgeon, (c. 1756 – 20 February 1832).jpg
Died20 February 1832
CitizenshipKingdom of Ireland and, later, British
Scientific career
Fieldssurgeon, zoologist, botanist
InstitutionsRoyal Navy
Author abbrev. (botany)J.White
Author abbrev. (zoology)White

John White (c. 1756 – 20 February 1832) was an Irish surgeon and botanical collector.


White was born in the townland of Drumaran, near Belcoo, in County Fermanagh in Ulster, the northern province in Ireland, about 1756,[1][2][3][4] and not, as stated in the Dictionary of Australian Biography[5] and the Australian Dictionary of Biography,[6] in Sussex, England. On 18 June 1778 John White qualified as a surgeon's mate, first rate, following examination at the Company of Surgeons in London. He entered the Royal Navy on 26 June 1778 as surgeon's mate aboard HMS Wasp. He was promoted surgeon in 1780, serving aboard HMS Irresistible until 1786 when Sir Andrew Hamond recommended him as principal naval surgeon for the voyage of the First Fleet to Australia.[7]

In March 1787 White joined the First Fleet at Plymouth as surgeon for the convict transport Charlotte, where he found that the convicts had been living for some time on salt meat, a bad preparation for a long voyage. He succeeded in obtaining supplies of fresh meat and vegetables for them, and arranged that they should be allowed up on deck in relays to obtain fresh air.[6] On arrival in Australia, White engaged one of the convicts, Thomas Barrett, to engrave a silver medallion to mark the occasion.[8] The medallion, or "Charlotte Medal", is displayed in Australia's National Maritime Museum.[8]

In 1788 White was appointed Surgeon-General of New South Wales and organised a hospital for the new colony, somewhat hampered by a lack of medical supplies. He became interested in the native flora and fauna of the new land and investigated the potential of Australian plants for use as medicine. He observed the olfactory qualities of eucalyptus and distilled eucalyptus oil in 1788.

White wrote A Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1790),[9] which described many Australian species for the first time.[10] Journal had 65 copper-plate engravings of birds, animals and plants, many of which were based on the water colour paintings of Sarah Stone,[11][12] and during the next five years was translated into German and French.[6] It is believed (by his unnamed biographer) that Thomas William Parr was employed as a sketch artist by White to produce natural history drawings as a starting point for development and colouring by other artists.[13] White was the first to describe Litoria caerulea, a species of frog endemic to Australia and New Guinea, which has several common names, including "White's tree frog". In 1792, Thomas Watling a convict artist newly arrived to the colony was appointed by the government to assist John White in the production of copies of illustrations of various plants, insects and animals. A portrait of John White, a miniature on ivory, signed by Thomas Watling and dated "N.S.Wales 1792" was sold at auction in December 2006.[14]

According to his journal, White severely disliked Australia, describing it as: "a country and place so forbidding and so hateful as only to merit execration and curses." He applied for leave of absence in 1792, and received it in 1794, sailing for England on 17 December 1794 and later travelled to Ireland. In 1796 he resigned his position when given the option of returning to Australia. Earlier in 1796, White was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and on 10 March 1797, the Senate of the University of St Andrews conferred the degree of Doctor of Medicine on him. White was a surgeon on HMS Royal William, and for 20 years he was stationed first at Sheerness from 1799 and then at Chatham Dockyard from 1803. He retired on a half pension in 1820, and died in Worthing, England in 1832.[15]


Sydney's White Bay is named in his honour.[16]

John White is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of Australian lizard, Egernia whitii.[17]


  1. ^ Nelson E.C. (1998). "John White A. M., M. D., F. L. S. (c.1756–1832), Surgeon-General of New South Wales: a new biography of the messenger of the echidna and the waratah". Archives of Natural History. 25 (2): 149–212. doi:10.3366/anh.1998.25.2.149.
  2. ^ Nelson, E. C. (1986), "The first Ulsterman in Botany Bay, Surgeon-General John White', The Linen Hall review 3 (2): 8–9
  3. ^ Nelson E.C. (1987). "From the banks of Erne to Botany Bay: John White (c.1756–1832), Surgeon-General of New South Wales". Familia. 2 (3): 73–82.
  4. ^ Nelson E.C. (1988). "'John White (c.1756–1832), surgeon-general of New South Wales: biographical notes on his Irish origins". Irish Historical Studies. 25 (100): 405–412. doi:10.1017/S0021121400025074. PMID 11617226. S2CID 34987163.
  5. ^ Percival Serle (1949). "White, John". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Angus & Robertson. Retrieved 16 September 2007.
  6. ^ a b c Rienits, Rex (1967). "White, John (1756–1832)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 2. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  7. ^ Correspondence, Sir A.S. Hamond to Under Secretary Charles Nepean,16 October 1786. Cited in Britton (ed.), p.24
  8. ^ a b Barlass, Tim (16 November 2013). "Damaged First Fleet copper medal to fetch pretty penny". Sun Herald. p. 20.
  9. ^ Nelson, E. Charles (1998). "John White's Journal of a voyage to new South Wales (London 1790) bibliographic notes". Archives of Natural History. 25: 109–130. doi:10.3366/anh.1998.25.1.109.
  10. ^ Bauer, Aaron Matthew (1999). "Notes on John White's Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1790), a Classic of Australian Herpetology" (PDF). International Society for the History and Bibliography of Herpetology Newsletter and Bulletin. 1 (1): 16–19. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 July 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  11. ^ Piggot L.J. (2000). "John White's Journal of a voyage to new South Wales (1790) comments on the natural history and the artistic origins of the plates". Archives of Natural History. 27 (2): 157–174. doi:10.3366/anh.2000.27.2.157.
  12. ^ Dickson, Nicola Jan (2010). Wonderlust: the influence of natural history illustration and ornamentation on perceptions of the exotic in Australia (PDF) (Doctor of Philosophy). Australian National University. Retrieved 12 November 2015.
  13. ^ "Parr, Thomas William". Trove. Design and Art Australia Online. Retrieved 19 October 2019.
  14. ^[permanent dead link]
  15. ^ Nelson E.C. (1998). "John White A. M., M. D., F. L. S. (c.1756–1832), Surgeon-General of New South Wales: a new biography of the messenger of the echidna and the waratah". Archives of Natural History. 25 (2): 149–212. doi:10.3366/anh.1998.25.2.149.
  16. ^ "White Bay". Geographical Names Register (GNR) of NSW. Geographical Names Board of New South Wales. Retrieved 12 October 2013. Edit this at Wikidata
  17. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("White, J.", p. 284).
  18. ^ International Plant Names Index.  J.White R.N.

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