John White (surgeon)

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


White was born in Sussex (some sources state he was born in 1750)[1] and entered the Royal Navy on 26 June 1778 as third surgeon's mate.[2] 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.[3]

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.[1] On arrival in Australia, White engaged convicted forger Thomas Barrett to engrave a silver medallion to mark the occasion.[4] The medallion, or "Charlotte Medal", is displayed in Australia's National Maritime Museum.[4]

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), which described many Australian species for the first time.[5] Journal had 65 copper-plate engravings of birds, animals, and botanical specimens, many of which were based on the water colour paintings of Sarah Stone,[6] and during the next five years was translated into German and French.[1] 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.

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. White was a surgeon on the 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.[2]


Sydney's White Bay is named in his honour.[7]



  1. ^ a b c Percival Serle (1949). "White, John". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Angus & Robertson. Retrieved 2007-09-16. 
  2. ^ a b Rienits, Rex (1967). "White, John (1756 - 1832)". Australian Dictionary of Biography 2. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  3. ^ Correspondence, Sir A.S. Hamond to Under Secretary Charles Nepean,16 October 1786. Cited in Britton (ed.), p.24
  4. ^ a b Barlass, Tim (16 November 2013). "Damaged First Fleet copper medal to fetch pretty penny". Sun Herald (Fairfax Media). p. 20. 
  5. ^ Bauer, A.M. (1999). "Notes on John White's Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1790), a Classic of Australian Herpetology". International Society for the History and Bibliography of Herpetology Newsletter and Bulletin 1 (1): 16–19.
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "White Bay". Geographical Names Register (GNR) of NSW. Geographical Names Board of New South Wales. Retrieved 12 October 2013. 
  8. ^ "Author Query for 'J.White R.N.'". International Plant Names Index. 


  • Britton, Alex R., ed. (1978). Historical records of New South Wales. Vol. 1, part 2. Phillip, 1783-1792. Lansdown Slattery & Co. p. 56. OCLC 219911274. 

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