Natural history collector, author and naval surgeon, he was chief surgeon on the First Fleet. He avidly collected specimens and drawings, but there is little evidence that he himself drew any of them. He was assigned the convict artist Thomas Watling, who seems to have been the hand behind his studies and topographical illustrations.
natural history collector, author and naval surgeon, was chief surgeon with the First Fleet and actively contributed to the low death rate aboard the eleven ships on the voyage to Botany Bay in 1788. A keen naturalist, White sent drawings and specimens to London to be developed as engravings for The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (London 1789), but neither he nor any other local resident made the original sketches for the engraver. Dead birds, plants and animals were sent by White to his friend Thomas Wilson in November 1788 to form the basis of the sixty-five illustrations by English artists, primarily Sarah Stone , in White’s own Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (London 1790). The book was translated into several European languages and brought White much acclaim.
In October 1792 the convict artist Thomas Watling reached Sydney and appears to have been immediately assigned to White and ordered to produce drawings of the specimens White had collected, together with numerous topographical illustrations of the colony. Watling thought White 'a very mercenary, sordid person’, writing to his aunt in Dumfries, Scotland, of his 'indescribable sorrow’ at being in bondage to such a tyrant. His dislike of the man was doubtless exacerbated by White’s conviction that it was improper for a convict to sign his work, Watling’s signed watercolour Ciliary Warbler (silver-eye) later being annotated verso by White: 'The pride and vanity of the Draughtsman has induced Him to put his Name to all the Drawings, but should you publish them I think the Name may be left out’ – further evidence that any earlier drawings were not White’s own.
White lent Watling to Judge-Advocate David Collins and possibly to other friends ('as an household utensil to a neighbour’, Watling indignantly described it). When he left the colony in the Daedalus on 17 December 1794 for leave in England, Watling was reassigned to Collins. At the end of his leave, White refused to return to New South Wales. He resigned his appointment in August 1796 but continued as a naval surgeon until superannuated in January 1820. He attempted to publish a second book on the colony and sent many drawings and a manuscript for it to A.B. Lambert, a noted botanist. It never appeared and the manuscript has since disappeared; the drawings are possibly those now in the British Museum (Natural History) known, ironically, as the Watling Collection from the only signature that appears on any of them. White retired to Brighton and died at Worthing on 20 February 1832. He was survived by three children from his English marriage and a son, Andrew Douglass, from his liaison with the convict Rachel Turner.
While there is little evidence to indicate that White himself drew, apart from the inscription 'I. White delin.’ under a vignette-sized view of Port Jackson on the title-page of his Journal (which, as Bernard Smith suggests, could have been ascribed by the London publisher to an unsigned drawing without White’s knowledge), there is no doubt that he was an avid collector of both drawings and specimens and was keen to illustrate the natural history and topography of the new colony. The Rienits’ suggestion that he may have been the Port Jackson Painter , however, has been dismissed by subsequent art historians.