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 County Down, Ireland, Sloane rose from humble origins, his parents working for he Hamilton family. Historian Mark Purcell writes:
Far from growing up on the fringes of secure aristocratic privilege, Sloane's youth at Killyleagh was spent in a world which was in danger of dissolution, his parents the servants of a once-powerful dynasty which had fallen on hard times, whose inheritance was in the uncertain hands of two widows and a 13-year-old boy, and which would, in a generation, be picked over by lawyers and divided between squabbling relatives.
In his teens, Sloane himself 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. But by the age of 19, he was well enough to move to London to study medicine. He 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. 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 such pedestrian beginnings.
Long before the satirists started on him, Sloane 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 the duke's 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. 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.
Jamaica had been a favorite haunt of pirates when Sloane and his employer arrived. In fact, Jamaica was undergoing a multifaceted transition when the young naturalist arrived, from privateer haven to plantation system, and from Spanish colony to British colony. One thing that persisted was slavery. Sloane 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, but often dismissed them as ignorant and ineffectual. (Some of his disdain might have masked his fear — fear that they could compete with him for patients, especially since their services were less expensive than his, and a general paranoia suffered by the white population that the slaves might like to poison their masters.) So his views on race were often contradictory.
Sloane's approach to Jamaican plants was a bit contradictory, too. 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, so not everyone who bought his book got the same product.
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.
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 handaxe near an elephant tusk. Both items occurred about 12 feet below ground, in a gravel pit. The handaxe, known as the Gray's Inn Lane handaxe, 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.
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." The lung problem he developed in his teens might have affected him for the rest of his life, but he nevertheless lived past the age of 90. When he died in 1753, his collection became the basis for the British Museum, which officially opened in 1759. Sloane's will not only made the establishment of the museum possible, but also looked after the long-term interests of his daughters. To get his collection, the King had to pay 20,000 pounds for it.
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. (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.
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 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 July 1, 2014