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.
Sloane's collections are the founding core of the Museum's collections and occupy a central position in its history. Sloane's collections are regularly consulted by scientists, artists, and others to this day and the Museum is committed to preserving them and making them more accessible for future generations, as Sloane had intended.
Sir Hans Sloane
Sir Hans Sloane was born in 1660, the same year that the Royal Society was founded to bring together scientists for weekly meetings where they could witness experiments and discuss scientific topics. Sloane would become 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.
After a spell of ill health Sloane 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 studied 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 that the two men were pursuing. Their search to find and describe and name new plants and animals was a passion that Sloane himself would put to good use before long.
Front page of Sloane's Jamaican Natural History.
In 1685 Sloane 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 three month voyage, making observations on phosphorescence in the water and the habits of seabirds.
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 Sloane Database PDF (196.6 KB)
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, the Catalogus Plantarum (often referred to as the Catalogue).
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 Sloane published the first volume: '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.