Hans Sloane

From Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

Hans Sloane was born in 1660, the year of the Restoration of Charles II, and the establishment of the Royal Society of London. Considering the Royal Society's stated goal was engaging in careful, factual observation of the natural world, it's fitting that Hans Sloane should be born the same year.

Born in County Down, Ulster, Hans was the youngest son of Alexander Sloane and Sarah Hickes, both servants of aristocracy. Alexander succeeded financially, but the fortune he made went to his eldest son, and that wasn't Hans. Financially, Hans would have to fend for himself. Fortunately, he lacked neither brains for ambition. He was "blessed" in another way. In his teens, he contracted some sort of illness that involved the "spitting of blood," an affliction that interrupted his youthful education, and one that would occasionally recur throughout his life. The upside of the illness was that Sloane resolved at a young age to watch his diet and his drinking — a rarity in the 17th and 18th centuries. This self-policing served him well; he lived to be nearly 93.

At 19, Sloane moved to London to study medicine. He then continued his education in France, at the University of Orange. Returning to London he was elected to the Royal Society at the tender age of 25, and elected to the Royal College of Physicians soon afterwards. Then he got the chance of a lifetime.

Christopher Monck, Second Duke of Albemarle, was appointed governor of Jamaica and invited Sloane to be his personal physician. He would be well compensated for treating the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle, and well compensated for providing medical services to plantation owners. Plus he would have complete medical oversight of the Duke's fleet.

The Duke's fleet set sail in 1687, and Sloane ogled marine life in between treating seasickness. At a welcoming reception on the other side of the Atlantic, Sloane happily sampled exotic fruits from his dessert plate. Meanwhile, the Duke drank enough to give himself a prolific nosebleed.

Monck's friends and family might have hoped that taking a position of authority would induce him 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." Sloane managed to keep his principle patient alive long enough to learn plenty about Jamaica's natural history. He 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.)

The coronavirus pandemic shuttered the British Museum for months in 2020. During the closure, museum staff moved Sloane's bust from a plinth to a display about the slave trade. From The British Museum Reopens to a World That Has Changed in The New York Times.

Hans Sloane had been born to a Protestant family in Northern Ireland, where his family was surrounded by a sea of resentful Catholics. It wouldn't be the last time he and the people closest to him were outnumbered by a disenfranchised crowd.

When Sloane arrived, Jamaica was undergoing a multifaceted transition, from privateer haven to plantation system, and from Spanish colony to British colony. The English congratulated themselves on being more humane to Native Americans than the "cruel" Spanish, but Jamaica was increasingly devoted to slavery. By the mid-17th century, Europeans had transitioned from one rationalization of slavery to another. It used to be acceptable for Christians to enslave heathens, but heathens could convert. By Sloane's day, it was instead acceptable for whites to enslave sub-Saharan Africans, who couldn't change their skin.

During Sloane's stay in Jamaica, slaves vastly outnumbered their masters. By 1700, Jamaica's slaves outnumbered whites 40,000 to 7,000. White planters exacted revenge on runaway slaves, but the population of Maroons (people with West African and Native American ancestry) reminded the planters of their limited control. The Maroon population eventually grew big enough to demand some political autonomy.

Sloane's views on race were often contradictory. He stood out among natural historians of his day in that he was willing to learn from people of color, at least a little bit. He sometimes allowed that they could be worthwhile healers, though often dismissed them as ignorant and ineffectual. Some of his disdain might have masked his fear that they could compete with him for patients, especially since their services were less expensive than his. He derided slave doctors for superstition and quackery. In the meantime, he bled his patients and administered emetics.

Sloane showed little evidence of a conscience plagued by the cruelties of slavery. He accommodated intimate access to female slaves by their white male masters. Always solicitous of his white patients, even when they were self-destructive, he generally accused slaves of faking their symptoms to avoid work. He despised "cunning" slave women who tried to abort their pregnancies and save their unborn children lives of bondage. He lived comfortably in a world where European planters ate prime cuts of beef and pork while their slaves subsisted on rotten meat and worms. Some slaves became so desperate and stressed that they resorted to eating soil.

Untroubled by slavery while in Jamaica, Sloane would become more strongly associated with it after he returned to England. In 1695, he married Elizabeth Langley Rose, who inherited a Jamaican estate from her father the year before. From that time forward, the slave-farmed plantation system would line Sloane's pockets. Given how much slave-plantation infrastructure enabled his collecting — and that of the people whose collections he later acquired — it's undeniable that his natural history expertise owed its very existence to the slave trade.

Though little troubled by the sufferings of slaves, Sloane was mightily inconvenienced by the Duke of Albemarle, who died from his own excesses at 34. His widow decided to return to England. The sea voyage to Jamaica had been a relatively 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. Furthermore, the trip home involved transporting the Duke's smelly, seeping body. Everybody arrived back in England in time for the Glorious Revolution.

Sloane continued to treat the Duchess of Albemarle in England, and picked up a number of other high-profile, high-paying patients. He also made money collecting rents. Views of his abilities were mixed. Over the years, Sloane would be mercilessly mocked by satirists, one of them referring to his collection as a "nicknackatory." Maybe the sniping arose from a fascinated envy at an upstart who rose to prominence from fairly pedestrian beginnings.

From Nature's Treasurehouse by John Thackray and Bob Press

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. (Linnaeus later consulted Sloane's work in naming species.) 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. 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 Jamaican plants was a bit contradictory. In the text, he complained of errors in the engravings, explaining that he had been too nice to his "workmen" 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, so not everyone who bought his book got the same product.

Chocolate window display
Items from Sloane's collection: a jeweled turban button from India (top), and an ancient hand axe (bottom), from Collecting the World by James Delbourgo

Besides securing illustrations for his published work, Sloane compiled an herbarium of pressed plants accompanied by detailed illustrations. The specimens he personally collected comprised only about nine volumes, but through purchases and gifts, he acquired enough plants to fill 336 volumes. (They have since been rebound, and the current volume number is about 265.) 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. A mammoth tooth collected in Siberia made its way into Sloane's holdings, and still resides in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. Sloane also demonstrated that a so-called giant's vertebra presented for his inspection really belonged to a whale. He encouraged his contemporaries to "do some sort of comparative anatomy."

An especially intriguing find that helped spur Sloane's interest in fossil elephants occurred in 1673, when an apothecary and antiquary named John Conyers found a hand axe near an elephant tusk. Both items occurred about 12 feet below ground, in a gravel pit. The hand axe, known as the Gray's Inn Lane hand axe, is now understood to be about 350,000 years old, but such an old item, particularly of human invention, was unthinkable in Sloane's day. But like Conyers, he doubted the specimens dated to Roman times given their depth below the ground surface.

Fossils were still regarded as anything dug up from the ground in Sloane's time, but the way he organized his collections — putting fossils with other natural history specimens — indicates that he generally regarded them as the remains of once-living organisms. Two exceptions were shark teeth and belemnites. After becoming Royal Society president, he presented papers on the elephants, writing about their "Fossile Teeth." In the case of the tusk at Gray's Inn Lane, he attributed its burial to a flood, perhaps the Flood. He speculated that the flood event ushered in a cooler climate that was too much for the pachyderms to endure.

As Sloane's collections grew, they filled his home, forcing him to buy the building next door for additional storage space. In 1742, he retired from practicing medicine to preside full time over his collections. 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" and "popish trinkets." For someone who disdained the overly elaborate papacy, Sloane took on the majestic trappings of high religious or royal office. Late in his life, visitors to his collection often kissed Sloane's hands.

When he died in 1753, his collection became the basis for the British Museum, which officially opened in 1759.

Sloane started thinking seriously about his legacy after a bout of illness starting in 1738. Though his wife's fortune had helped him immensely, and though women — from aristocratic to slave — had contributed to his collection, he apparently didn't consider naming his daughters as custodians of his collection. Instead, he stipulated that his collection should be sold for 20,000 pounds, and the money used for his daughters' financial needs. Parliament and King George II acquiesced within months of Sloane's death.

When the Ashmolean Museum opened at Oxford in 1683, it admitted anyone who could pay the admission fee. The British Museum was less egalitarian. Would-be visitors had to apply in writing for admission, and only the sufficiently respectable were issued tickets. (While Sloane was still alive, the best way "middling" sorts of Brits could see some of his goodies was to visit a coffee shop where bits of his collection were displayed.) 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. In fact, Sloane's "nicknackatory" formed the basis for three of the United Kingdom's great institutions: the British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum, London.

Chocolate window display
Photographed by Bixentro (some rights reserved)

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 decades-long 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 thank Sloane for something else, something wonderful. He didn't invent it, but he promoted it "for its lightness on the stomach and its great use in all consumptive cases." It was chocolate.

Chocolate presents stiff competition, but one could argue that Sloane's most important legacy was a free, public museum. An institution that admitted plebeians and women along with rich men wasn't universally well received in the 18th and 19th centuries, but to champions of the working class, it was historic. In 1832, Penny Magazine, a publication of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, advised its readers:

Knock boldly at the gate, the porter will open it. . . . Do not fear any surly looks or impertinent glances. . . You are come to see your own property. You have as much right to see it, and you are as welcome therefore to see it, as the highest in the land.

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