Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gilbert, William (1540-1603)

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GILBERT, WILLIAM, M.D. (1540–1603), physician (who sometimes spelt his name Gilberd), was son of Hierom Gylberd, a Suffolk gentleman, who was recorder of Colchester, and great-grandson of Thomas Gilberd, who was made a burgess of Colchester in 1428. He was born at Colchester in 1540, and when twenty years of age graduated B.A. at St. John's College, Cambridge, and was elected a fellow on 21 March 1561. He graduated M.A. in 1564, and M.D. in 1569, becoming a senior fellow of his college on 21 Dec. 1569. In 1573 he settled in practice in London, and soon after became a fellow of the College of Physicians. He lived on St. Peter's Hill in London, was appointed physician to Queen Elizabeth, and attained considerable practice. He became censor of the College of Physicians in 1581, and was appointed to that office in seven subsequent years. He was treasurer of the college for nine years, and in 1600 was elected president. In that year he published in London ‘De Magnete, Magneticisque corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure, Physiologia Nova.’ It was the first great physical book published in England, and has fulfilled for its author Dryden's prophecy: ‘Gilbert shall live till loadstones cease to draw.’ His merit was immediately recognised both in England and on the continent. Bacon mentions Gilbert with respect in the ‘Novum Organum’ (ed. Leyden, 1650, pp. 263–5 and elsewhere). The author had worked at his subject for many years, revising and experimenting. He begins by a summary of existing knowledge about the magnet, exactly resembling the commencement of a modern scientific essay. The next part is characteristic of his own time, and is an account of the names of the loadstone and their etymology. The remainder is an investigation of the properties of the magnet, illustrated by diagrams and relating numerous experiments. The attraction of the magnet, its direction in relation to the poles of the earth, its variation and declination are treated in separate divisions. He does not neglect to point out the practical bearing of these points in navigation, and how the declination may be used in discovering the latitude at sea. His general conclusion is that the phenomena of magnetism are explained by regarding the earth as one vast spherical magnet. Some of his other scientific papers were printed at Amsterdam in 1651, after his death, edited by his brother, ‘De Mundo Nostri sublunari Philosophia Nova.’ He was appointed physician to James I on his accession, but died on 30 Nov. 1603. He was unmarried, and bequeathed all his books, globes, instruments, and a cabinet of minerals to the College of Physicians. They perished in the great fire of London in 1666. He was buried at Colchester, in the Holy Trinity Church, where his monument and epitaph, erected by his brothers Ambrose and William (of the same name as himself), still remains. It is a panel surrounded by a frame of Jacobean pattern, surmounted by pinnacles bearing globes and fourteen shields of armorial achievements. His portrait, by Harding, once in the schools at Oxford, and has been engraved by Clamp.

[Munk's Coll. of Phys. i. 77; Works; Morant's History of Colchester, 1748.]

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