Who was the first scientist?

Gilbert Grabs First Scientist Honors

You probably think of Galileo Galilei at the mention of Renaissance science, and rightfully so. He overturned Aristotle's ideas on motion and began to explain such complex concepts as force, inertia and acceleration. He built one of the first telescopes and used it to study the cosmos. What he saw through the lenses of his device removed Earth from the center of the universe and put it in its proper place. In all his work, Galileo stressed the need for observation and experimentation. And yet Galileo owes much to another seminal figure born 20 years earlier.

His name was William Gilbert, a rather obscure figure in the history of science. Along with Galileo, Gilbert had been busy practicing the scientific method in his work and setting an example for his peers after the first decade of the 17th century had past. Here's what John Gribbin had to say about Gilbert and Galileo in his 2002 book "The Scientists":

Although Galileo is one of the towering figures in science, known by name to every educated person today, and Gilbert is less well known than he deserves, Gilbert had the earlier birth date and, chronologically speaking at least, deserves the title of first scientist.

Gilbert was born in 1544 to a prominent local family and attended Cambridge University between 1558 and 1569. Eventually, he settled in London and embarked on a successful career as a physician, attending to both Queen Elizabeth I and, upon her death in 1603, to King James I.

It was Gilbert's investigations into the nature of magnetism, however, that may make him the first modern scientist. This work culminated in "De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure" ("On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet of the Earth"), the first significant book about physical science published in England. In the book's preface, Gilbert described the need for "sure experiments and demonstrated arguments" instead of "conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators." He also discussed the need to conduct experiments "carefully, skilfully and deftly, not heedlessly and bunglingly."

The scientist followed his own advice. Gilbert's book recounted his investigations in so much detail that another person could replicate his work and verify his results. This research led to many important discoveries about magnetism. The learned fellow also turned his inquisitive mind to the heavens.

Gilbert directly influenced Galileo. The famous Italian scientist read De Magnete and repeated many of its experiments. It's easy to imagine Galileo poring over the book and nodding in affirmation at Gilbert's ideas about experimentation and observation -- ideas that Galileo himself would apply in his groundbreaking work. Is it any wonder Galileo proclaimed Gilbert to be the founder of the scientific method? This endorsement alone may be enough to substantiate the claim that William Gilbert was the first modern scientist.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Al-Khalili, Jim. "The 'first true scientist.'" BBC News. Jan. 4, 2009. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7810846.stm
  • Clegg, Brian. "Who was the first scientist?" Nature Network Science Writers Forum. Oct. 13, 2007. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://network.nature.com/groups/sciencewriters/forum/topics/609
  • Farndon, John. "The Great Scientists." Metro Books, 2005.
  • Flatow, Ira, host. "How The Word 'Scientist' Came To Be." NPR Talk of the Nation. May 21, 2010. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127037417
  • Gribbin, John. "The Scientists." Random House, 2002.
  • McHenry, Robert. "Thales of Miletus: The First Scientist, the First Philosopher." Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog. April 28, 2010. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2010/04/thales-of-miletus-hero/
  • "William Gilbert." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233551/William-Gilbert