The Royal Society of London was established in 1660, with the purpose of engaging in careful, factual observation of the natural world. It's fitting that Hans Sloane should be born the same year. Sloane trained in medicine, pursued his love of botany, established one of the greatest natural history collections in Europe, and in 1727 became both president of the Royal Society and a physician to King George II.
Born to a Protestant family in Ireland, Sloane rose from humble origins. He moved to London to study medicine then continued his education in France, at the University of Orange. Back in London he was elected to the Royal Society at the tender age of 25, and elected to the Royal College of Physicians soon afterwards. He got the chance of a lifetime when the Christopher Monk, Second Duke of Albemarle, was appointed governor of Jamaica and invited Sloane to be his personal physician. Sloane spent 15 months in Jamaica, using his personal time to collect flora and fauna samples, and record its natural wonders. He recorded Jamaican animal behavior, too, such as the exasperating tendency of gluttonous ants to eat everything, including the bird specimens he wanted to take home.
Sloane's stay in Jamaica was cut short by the unhealthy habits of his patron. The duke's friends and family might have hoped that taking a position of authority would induce the man to settle down, but he lived as riotously in Jamaica as he had at home. After five months of heavy drinking, the duke noticed that his leg was swollen. Whether it was caused by his fondness for alcohol or some other source, the swelling didn't go away. Neither did the jaundice, digestive problems, or "fits." Inconveniently for his physician, the duke died at 34, and his widow decided to return to England. The sea voyage to Jamaica had been a fairly quiet one, but the voyage home was not; Sloane tried to bring back a crocodile, an iguana and a seven-foot snake. The crocodile died of natural causes, the iguana jumped overboard and somebody shot the snake. Luckily, Sloane's other specimens survived.
After returning to London, Sloane married well, set up a medical practice, and organized his collections. He published two volumes describing his travels, the first in 1707 and the second in 1725. By today's standards, the title was long-winded: Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, etc. of the Last of those Islands. One modern historian notes, "at least the reader knew exactly what he was getting." Published before Linnaeus's system of binomial nomenclature, species descriptions in the work were equally wordy. The volumes boasted illustrations "as big as life," such as the birds shown here (regrettably much littler than life). For his readers, Sloane painted a vivid picture of a dangerous place. Jamaica had been a favorite haunt of pirates when Sloane and his employer arrived. He wrote of "Serpents and other venomous Creatures," as well as the dangers posed by "run away Negros" — slaves who had escaped from their masters.
Sloane's approach to plants was a bit contradictory. In the text, he complained of errors in the engravings, explaining that he had been too nice to his engravers to insist on corrections, but he still insisted on life-sized pictures anyway. That didn't mean that pictures always wound up with the appropriate text. As was fairly common at the time, Sloane published his books piecemeal, and the volumes were usually unbound. Different audiences — fellow doctors, businessmen, and (perhaps most importantly) members of the Royal Society — had different interests in the plants and animals of the exotic places Sloane visited.
Besides securing illustrations for his published work, Sloane compiled an herbarium of pressed plants accompanied by detailed illustrations. The specimens he personally collected comprised just a few volumes, but through purchases and gifts, he acquired enough plants to fill more than 330 volumes. He also collected fossil bones. For many years, large bones found in Siberia and North America had been attributed to giants, but Sloane collected enough "giant" bones to show that they really belonged to relatives of elephants.
As Sloane's collections grew, they filled his home, forcing him to buy the building next door for additional storage space. Besides his volumes of pressed plants, he collected some 12,500 other "vegetable" samples, 6,000 shells, 9,000 invertebrates, 1,500 fish specimens, 3,000 vertebrate skeletons and stuffed specimens, and 1,200 birds, eggs, and nests. His collection also included "human curiosities." When he died in 1753, his collection became the basis for the British Museum, which officially opened in 1759.
When the Ashmolean Museum opened at Oxford in 1683, it admitted anyone who could pay the admission fee. The British Museum was far less egalitarian. Would-be visitors had to apply in writing for admission, and only the sufficiently respectable were issued tickets. By 1810, the rules had been relaxed, and "any person of decent appearance" could pass through the museum's doors. The natural history portion of the collections were eventually moved, and now reside in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. Over the years, Sloane's herbarium specimens have survived beautifully. His zoological specimens, however, were largely eaten up by beetles and moths; in the early 19th century, almost all of those specimens were burned to keep the pests eating them from spreading to the rest of the museum's collections. A prize from his collection — a gold ornament the size of a human eye, sporting emeralds, rubies, and a big blue sapphire — now survives in the natural history museum collections.
Some of Sloane's interest in collecting probably stemmed from his desire to be a good doctor (or to strike a blow for physicians over the less educated apothecaries). Many of the plants may have had medicinal value, and he collected "Peruvian Bark" (quinine) to treat fever. Yet most people today owe Sloane a debt of gratitude for something else, something wonderful he promoted "for its lightness on the stomach and its great use in all consumptive cases." He noticed Jamaican locals boiling seeds for a drink they enjoyed — a drink he did not. After sweetening it with milk and sugar, he found it very much to his liking, for good reason. It was chocolate.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated March 31, 2013