The Sloane collection

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). Engraving on steel by William Lizars.

Sir Hans Sloane was one of the most influential men of early eighteenth-century London. He amassed one of the greatest private collections of plants, animals, antiquities, coins and other curiosities. These items became the founding core of the British Museum and, later, the Natural History Museum.

Sir Hans Sloane was born in County Down, Northern Ireland in 1660, the same year the Royal Society was founded. He developed a fascination with nature early in life, and went on to explore this interest through his education.

Sloane moved to London in 1679 to study chemistry at the Apothecaries' Hall and botany at the Chelsea Physic Garden. During this period, he became friends with botanist John Ray and chemist Robert Boyle, both celebrated figures in their fields. The Library holds Sloane's personal copy of Ray's Historia plantarum (1686), annotated with references to Sloane's herbarium. Some of the pages in this copy were bound out of order, and the numbering has been corrected in Sloane's own hand.   

After his time in London, Sloane studied anatomy, medicine and botany in France in 1683. He received his doctorate in physics in the same year, and continued to establish connections with some of the greatest scientists of his time. In 1684, Sloane returned to London with the intention of settling into his profession as a physician. In 1687, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. A wealthy and popular physician, he counted royalty and members of high society among his patients.

Around the same time, Sloane accepted the offer to travel to the West Indies as the personal physician of Christopher Monck, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle and newly appointed governor of Jamaica. Sloane's specimens and notes from the following 15 months provided material for many of his later publications, including numerous papers submitted to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and his Catalogus Plantarum Quae in Insula Jamaica Sponte Proveniunt [Catalogue of Jamaican Plants] (1696), which the library holds a first edition of.

Perhaps Sloane's most well-known work is his publication Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, with the Natural History … of the Last of Those Islands. The first volume, published in 1707, had a strong botanical focus. It was followed in 1725 with another volume, this time examining not just the fauna of Jamaica but also wider themes such as disease, trade and climate. Sloane's copy of this work, complete with annotations, is held in the Botany Library, along with Sir Joseph Banks's personal copy.

Sloane's success as a physician continued to grow, culminating in his appointment as physician extraordinary to Queen Anne in 1712 and then to George I in 1714. After he was made a baronet in 1716, he continued to serve as Physician In Ordinary to George II. In 1719, he was made president of the Royal College of Physicians.

Perhaps the most irreplaceable items in the Sloane collection are his handwritten accession registers, which put each specimen in context, giving details of when, where and how each article was acquired. These 19 volumes note the origin of specimens now in the Museum's Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, and Zoology departments.

Sloane, who died in 1753, bequeathed his entire collection to the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs. That same year the British Museum was founded, in part to house Sloane's collection. Sloane's natural history specimens and the written works closely associated with them were moved to the Natural History Museum on its establishment in 1881.