Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane, baronet (1660-1753), a British collector and physician, was born on the 16th of April 1660 at Killyleagh in county Down, Ireland, the seventh son of Alexander Sloane, receiver-general of taxes. The young Sloane had an interest in collecting objects of natural history and other curiosities. At the age of sixteen he developed hæmoptysis, and was in bad health for three years, but he recovered sufficiently to further his education in London. He studied chemistry and attended lectures in anatomy and physic, along with botanical studies at the physic garden in Chelsea. During this time Sloane became influenced by the scholars John Ray and Robert Boyle, who were to remain his friends. After four years in London he travelled through France, spending some time at Paris, and taking his M.D. degree at the university of Orange in 1683. Sloane then attended the University of Montpellier where he further studied anatomy, medicine, and botany. He returned to London with a considerable collection of plants and other curiosities, of which the former were sent to Ray and utilized by him for his History of Plants.

Sloane was elected into the Royal Society, and at the same time he attracted the notice of Thomas Sydenham, who gave him valuable introductions to practice. In 1687 he became fellow of the College of Physicians, and proceeded to Jamaica the same year as physician to the duke of Albemarle. The duke died soon after landing, and Sloane’s visit lasted only fifteen months; but during that time he collected about 800 new species of plants. After returning to London in 1689 Sloane remained for nearly four years in the service of the duchess of Albemarle before setting up a practice in Bloomsbury, where he married Elizabeth, daughter and coheir of John Langley, a London alderman. Their house in Bloomsbury Place was at the centre of a fashionable residential area, and here Sloane established his successful practice; many of his patients were the prestigious figures of the day. He became secretary to the Royal Society in 1693, and edited the Philosophical Transactions for twenty years. In 1696 he published ‘Catalogus Plantarum quæ in Insula Jamaica sponte proveniunt aut vulgo coluntur’ (London, 1696, 12mo). In it he followed the arrangement of John Ray, who addressed him as ‘the best of friends’ in a touching farewell letter dated 7 Jan. 1704 (see Letters of Eminent Lit. Men, Camden Soc., pp. 194, 206, 303). In 1707 Sloane published the first volume of his great natural history book, ‘A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, St. Christopher’s, and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the last’ (London, folio), which he dedicated to Queen Anne. The second volume appeared in 1725. In 1709 he was elected a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences, and afterwards a member of the academies of sciences of St. Petersburg and Madrid.

Sloane was created M.D. at Oxford in 1701, and elected a censor of the College of Physicians in 1705, 1709, and 1715, and was president of the Royal College of Physicians in London from 1719 to 1735. In 1712 he was appointed as physician to Queen Anne, he attended her final illness in 1714. On the death of Sir Isaac Newton in 1727, Sloane was chosen president of the Royal Society, he held office till November 1741. He was a whig, and in August 1722 was appointed physician-general to the army on the death of Sir Thomas Gibson (Sloane MS. 4046, f. 273). On 3 April 1716 he was made a baronet, and in 1727 first physician to George II. A physician then had charge of Christ’s Hospital, and Sloane was appointed to this post in 1694, and held office till 1730. He used to give his whole salary to the foundation, and was a generous benefactor to many other hospitals. Among his papers are innumerable appeals for help, pecuniary or professional, and it is clear that he was rarely asked in vain. He never refused to advise a patient who could not afford to pay him a fee. Once a week he had an open dinner party, at which he entertained his friends in the College of Physicians and the Royal Society. In 1732 he was one of the promoters of the colony of Georgia. In 1712 Sloane had purchased the manor of Chelsea, and, on retiring from practice as a physician in May 1741, settled on his estate there. He had founded in 1721, for the Society of Apothecaries, the botanic garden at Chelsea, but he devised it, in the event of their ceasing to cultivate it, to the College of Physicians and the Royal Society jointly. In 1745 he issued his only medical publication, ‘An Account of a Medicine for Soreness, Weakness, and other Distempers of the Eyes’ (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1750; French transl. Paris, 1746). His great idea as a collector was to acquire (by bequest, conditional on paying off certain debts) in 1701 the cabinet of William Courten, who had made collecting the business of his life. When Sloane had retired from active work in 1741, his library and cabinet of curiosities, which he took with him from Bloomsbury to his house in Chelsea, had grown to be of unique value.

After an illness of only three days, Sloane died on 11 Jan. 1753, and was buried, with his wife, in Chelsea churchyard. He bequeathed his books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, pictures, medals, coins, seals, cameos and other curiosities to the nation, on condition that parliament should pay to his executors £20,000 (for Sloane’s two daughters), which was a good deal less than the value of the collection. The bequest was accepted on those terms by an act passed on 7 June 1753. Sloane’s library of manuscripts and printed books, tracts on natural science and medicine, collected letters and papers, and Sloane’s own correspondence, is one of the great resources for scholarly research into eighteenth-century intellectual history. Parliament further decided to purchase the manuscripts from the collection of the Harleys, first and second earls of Oxford, which were then on the market. With the Sloane and Harleian collections were to be combined the manuscripts left to the nation in 1700 by Sir Robert Cotton, all three to form the founding collection of the British Museum, opened to the public at Montagu House in Bloomsbury, in 1759. In 1973 the British Museum’s library was joined by an act of Parliament with a number of other holdings to create the British Library. About half the national library’s holdings were kept at the museum until a new library building was opened at St. Pancras in 1997. See, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Vol. 52, pp. 379-80, Sloane, Hans by Norman Moore; Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911, Vol. 25, p. 243, Sloane, Sir Hans; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in Association with The British Academy, From the earliest times to the year 2000, H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 943-49, Sloane, Sir Hans, baronet (1660-1753); The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, British Museum (online).