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Dr Stephen Pumfrey, Department of History, Furness College, Lancaster University, LA1 4YG UK
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Life of William Gilbert

Given Gilbert's prominence in the history of magnetism and early modern science, little evidence has survived about his life and intellectual development. Since Gilbert died in London during the 1603-4 outbreak of plague, it may be that many of his personal effects and papers were burned. London's "Great Fire" of 1666 also took its toll, destroying the College of Physicians and his bequest to it of "all my bookes in my Librarye, my Globes, and Instrumentes, and my cabinet of myneralles."

Nevertheless, over time many have written biographies, some of which are listed on this page (see below). Their different emphases illustrate how our reasons for being interested in past science and scientists have changed over time. Somewhat immodestly, I would suggest that Gilbert's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is currently the most reliable.

The inclusion and repetition by some historians of false or speculative statements illustrates (as Gilbert himself wrote) how we abhor a vacuum and take things too much on trust. The age of electronic information is multiplying the errors. Four out of ten of the 17,000+ web-pages stating a year of birth for Gilbert give it incorrectly as 1540. The correct date of 1544 was established over 100 years ago! Gilbert disliked the information revolution of his era - the proliferation of cheap printed books. One wonders what Gilbert would have made of the internet revolution, and of this site?

Stephen Pumfrey, 'William Gilbert' in Peter Harman and Simon Mitton (eds), Cambridge Scientific Minds, pp. 6-20 (pdf)

Stephen Pumfrey, 'William Gilbert (1544?-1603)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press , 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [accessed 5 Oct 2010]

Stephen Pumfrey, 'William Gilbert, An Intellectual Biography' (pdf)

Thomas Fuller, 'William Gilbert' in A History of the Worthies of England (London, 1662) (pdf)

Galileo Project - http://galileo.rice.edu/sci/gilbert.html

Wikipedia Article on Gilbert

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