In his long life, the noted physician, scientist and collector Sir Hans Sloane amassed one of the greatest collections of plants, animals, antiquities, coins and many other objects of his time. It was to be the founding core of the British Museum and later The Natural History Museum.
Sloane was born in 1660, the year that Britain's experiment with republicanism ended and the flamboyant reign of Charles II began. This was the 'Age of Reason' when scientists such as Isaac Newton were questioning and seeking order in the natural world. Voyages of discovery were opening up new environments to Europeans. In this year the Royal Society was founded to bring together scientists for weekly meetings where they could witness experiments and discuss scientific topics. Sir Hans Sloane was to be President of the Society from 1727 to 1741.
As a child in Killileagh, Ireland, Sloane became a keen observer of nature. In later life he recalled how he had 'from my Youth been very much pleas'd with the study of Plants and other Parts of Nature'. He had noted, for instance, the local people's habit of chewing dulse (a seaweed) as a cure for scurvy.
Aftera spell of ill health he moved to London in 1679 to study chemistry at the Apothecaries Hall and to pursue his favourite study of botany in the Physic Garden at Chelsea. At this time he became a friend of the celebrated botanist John Ray and 'The Father of Chemistry', Robert Boyle.
In 1683 Sloane toured France where he was to study anatomy, medicine and botany, and received his Doctorate of Physics later that year. In France he met and befriended some of the great botanists and physicians of his time - Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and Monsignor Magnol. He was intrigued by the search for species which the two men were pursuing. Their search to find and describe and name new plants and animals was a passion which he would put to good use before long.
On returning to England in 1685 he was made a Fellow of the young but prestigious Royal Society, and in 1687 a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. It was at this time that he was offered the chance to travel to Jamaica as physician to the new Governor, The 2nd Duke of Albermarle. With a list of questions and requests for specimens from John Ray and others the young physician undertook the 3 month voyage, a time he did not waste, making observations during the voyage on phosphorescence in the water and the habits of sea birds.
During the 15 months that he was in Jamaica, Sloane made extensive notes on the local fauna and flora, the customs of the local inhabitants and natural phenomena such as earthquakes. He compiled the collection of Jamaican plants that you can view on this site in addition to molluscs, insects, fish and many other specimens. For a detailed description of Sloane's work in Jamaica see A specialist's guide to the database.
Following the death of the Duke, Sloane returned to England in 1689. He then began to work on the information he had gathered in Jamaica and in 1696 published a list of the plants he had collected, theCatalogus Plantarum (often referred to as the Catalogue).
Sloane's great strength was his willingness to put science ahead of personal kudos and accept that plants he had thought to be new might on comparison be the same as plants already described by other botanists. He would reduce a number of species down to one, by careful observation, comparison and judgement. His exactness in his descriptions of plants make them useful to this day.
Sloane and chocolate
While in Jamaica, Sloane was introduced to cocoa as a drink favoured by the local people. He found it 'nauseous' but by mixing it with milk made it more palatable. He brought this chocolate recipe back to England where it was manufactured and at first sold by apothecaries as a medicine. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, it was being taken up by Messrs Cadbury who manufactured chocolate using Sloane's recipe. The type specimen of cocoa (Theobroma cacao) can be seen in the database.
In 1695 Sloane married and set up medical practice at his house in Bloomsbury Square, London. Sloane was a highly esteemed physician with many distinguished patients and, in addition to many academic awards, he was appointed Physician Extraordinary to Queen Anne in 1796, George I in 1716, and Physician in Ordinary to George II in 1727.
Alongside his medical work, Sloane remained an enthusiastic collector and botanist and acquired the collections of several other important figures in botany at the time, including Leonard Plukenet, James Petiver and Mark Catesby. These collections were rich in plants from newly explored lands and contained many new species.
In 1707 he published the first volume of his A 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, &c. Of the last of those ISLANDS; referred to in short as the 'Natural History' or 'History'. The second volume was not to appear until 1725. This work contains careful and very readable descriptions of not only the plants and animals he encountered but also how natural resources were used by the islands' inhabitants. His collections from Jamaica were organised in their bound volumes in a series of 'Chapters' that approximate the Natural History. Over the next 50 years his collection grew enormously to fill a large part of his house and he was obliged to employ a full-time curator. Corridors and rooms were filled from top to bottom with plants, animals, gemstones, coins, antiquities and many more objects. Sloane's 'Museum' became a major attraction of its time and was visited by a stream of distinguished visitors from Britain and abroad. One in particular, the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, was to use Sloane's text and drawings as the basis for descriptions of new species in his major work the Species Plantarum.
Sloane must have been aware of the conflict between access to, and conservation of, his collections that museum curators experience today. On one occasion the composer G.F. Handel was visiting Sloane and, so it is said, placed a buttered muffin on one of his priceless manuscripts, much to Sloane's consternation.
Sloane died at the age of 93 in 1753 after a long illness. He had been keen for his collections to survive beyond his death and be available to the nation and had made provision in his will that his curios:
'...may remain together and not be separated and that chiefly in and about the city of London, where I have acquired most of my estates and where they may by the great confluence of people be most used'.
He offered this vast collection to the nation for the sum of £20,000, a large sum in those days but probably much less than the collection's real worth. After his death, money raised by a lottery was used to purchase the collection and so was created the British Museum at Bloomsbury and later its offspring The Natural History Museum at South Kensington (NHM). Sloane's collections are thus the founding core of the NHM's collections and occupy a central position in the Museum's history. Sloane's collections are regularly consulted by scientists and artists and others to this day and the NHM is committed to preserving them and making them more accessible for future generations as Sloane had intended. This website is one of the many ways in which we hope to achieve that goal.