Naturalist, physician. Gibbes was born in Charleston on July 8, 1809, the son of attorney William Hasell Gibbes and his wife, Mary Wilson. A perceptive student, Gibbes graduated in 1827 from South Carolina College, which soon appointed him as assistant professor of geology and chemistry. During the summers of 1827 and 1828, he studied medicine in Philadelphia and then enrolled in the Medical College of South Carolina where he earned the M.D. degree in 1830. After resigning from the South Carolina College faculty in 1834, Gibbes established a medical practice in Columbia, which he maintained for the rest of his life. Married to Caroline Elizabeth Guignard on December 20, 1827, he was the father of twelve children.
Keenly interested in natural history, Gibbes collected bird specimens, mollusk shells, and minerals. He was especially interested in vertebrate fossils, and it was in the field of paleontology that he made lasting contributions. Among his significant studies was “Description of the Teeth of a new Fossil Animal found in the Green Sand of South Carolina,” published in 1845 in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Gibbes described and named Dorudon serratus, a previously unknown primitive whale. During the next six years, he published articles on fossil shark teeth and the extinct mosasaurs (large, lizard-like marine animals). He also contributed to the proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the many scientific organizations in which he held membership. In 1849 Gibbes published The Present Earth the Remains of a Former World, in which he argued that the earth was millions of years older than traditionally believed. He insisted, however, that this fact could be easily reconciled with the biblical story of creation, thus enabling him to account for the ancient age of fossils without questioning the validity of the Scriptures. He published his last scientific paper in 1850.
A man of notable versatility, Gibbes was a patron of the arts and owned an impressive collection of paintings. In 1846 he completed A Memoir of James De Veaux, of Charleston, S.C., a gracefully crafted biography of a talented artist. He also cultivated an interest in the American past, and in 1853 he published Documentary History of the American Revolution, which pertained mostly to South Carolina. Throughout most of his career, Gibbes was active in the State Agricultural Society of South Carolina and in the South Carolina Medical Association. He was involved in the cultural and civic affairs of Columbia and served two terms as mayor. In 1852 he acquired the Daily South Carolinian and was the editor from 1852 to 1858. During the Civil War, Gibbes served as Surgeon General for South Carolina and otherwise endeavored to improve the medical capacity of the Confederacy. Federal troops destroyed his home and prized collections when they occupied Columbia in February 1865. Gibbes died in Columbia on October 15, 1866.
Jellison, Richard M., and Phillip S. Swartz. “The Scientific Interests of Robert W. Gibbes.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 66 (April 1965): 77–97.
Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson, Jr. Natural History Investiga- tions in South Carolina from Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: Uni- versity of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Stephens, Lester D. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.