Category: Collecting

Sloane becomes a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero

By Victoria Pickering

On Monday 28th September at 1:45pm, BBC Radio 4 aired the first segment of their ten-part series about Natural History Heroes and what would be my very first foray into sharing my research on national radio. It was a lot more nerve-racking than I expected, but also an interesting learning experience.

Iplayer Radio, BBC Radio 4. Image Credit: BBC.

Iplayer Radio, BBC Radio 4. Image Credit: BBC.

In April of this year (2015), the Natural History Museum (NHM) announced a BBC Radio 4 Natural Histories series. This would be a partnership that would ultimately allow the NHM to share extraordinary stories surrounding their vast collections, as well as the expertise of its scientists. The second element of this collaboration–Natural History Heroes–would then allow a range of experts from the Museum to select and discuss predecessors who inspired their work and lives. Finally, four prominent authors will write original short stories inspired by the incredible narratives uncovered during this partnership.

Wonderfully (and quite rightly!), Sir Hans Sloane was chosen to be the first Natural History Hero. Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Museum, Dr Mark Spencer, spoke charmingly about the incredible Sloane Herbarium. This is currently housed in the Historical Collections Room in the Museum’s Darwin Centre. This purpose-built space,  kept at a strict seventeen degrees Celsius, holds Sloane’s collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’–my obsession for the last three years.

Because of my PhD research on the collection, Mark invited me to be part of this programme. In July, the programme’s producer, Ellie Sans, contacted me. Ellie and I talked at length over the phone about the historical research I’ve been doing with the vegetables, particularly my interest in the people who sent botanical material from all over the world to Sloane in London. Ellie was particularly interested in the larger project that surrounds Sloane: Reconstructing Sloane (as well as Reconnecting Sloane) and the significance of this collaborative research.

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Historical Collections Room, Darwin Centre, NHM London. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Historical Collections Room, Darwin Centre, NHM London. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Mark recorded his part of the programme in the Historical Collections Room itself and I think this worked really well. It gave a great sense of what it’s like to be working in that room, at that temperature, with the objects themselves. I recorded my section a few weeks later and in hindsight, I should have suggested that we did this too. Instead, we spent about 20 minutes searching for a room in the Museum that was quiet enough to record without any background noise. It turns out, this is pretty difficult to do.

Three rooms and three recordings later, in a random but quiet Press Office Room, Ellie had recorded about forty-five minutes of me talking about who I am, where I’m based, what my research is about, what I’ve been doing, and why this is significant for today. Beforehand, Ellie had sent me a list of questions she would ask me, and I spent lots of time preparing my answers and thinking about the best way to reflect on my research. It really made me question why researching Sloane in different ways might be relevant to someone listening to the show.

I generally really enjoy presenting my research–and the wonderful thing about working with a Museum collection is the opportunity to share my work with all sorts of audiences through different public engagement activities. But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel with a microphone under my nose while trying to talk ‘naturally’ about what I do and why this is important. It’s amazing how people involved in broadcasting make it look and sound so effortless. At the end, Ellie mentioned that experts react in different and surprising ways when asked to do similar recordings. This definitely made me feel better!

Drawers containing Sloane's collection of 'Vegetable Substances'. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Drawers containing Sloane’s collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

By the end of the interview I had relaxed and was feeling more comfortable… and especially happy that this hadn’t been a live broadcast. I had no idea what the final show would sound like or how much of what I said would be included, but I thought that Ellie did a beautiful job of editing it.

It was primarily Mark’s show, so I was really pleased to have been included as much as I was, with my interview woven through the programme in such an interesting way. Ultimately, I’m just delighted that I could talk about  broadcast Sloane, his incredible collections and the research that a number of us are undertaking, to a national audience. Working with the NHM provided me with this exciting opportunity.

Now, I hope, the programme’s listeners are intrigued and keen to know more about Sloane and his astonishing eighteenth-century natural history collections.

Public and Private Gardens in the Eighteenth Century

By Chelsea Clark

Sloane was unique in his collecting habits and connections to gardens. He was passionate about obtaining plant specimens and discovering their various medical uses, however, appeared to be less interested in being personally involved in gardening. This is apparent when comparing his practices to those of his friend and colleague, Richard Richardson.

Despite the growing popularity of private gardens in England, Sloane did not have a garden of his own. His method of collecting botanical specimens was to dry them and press them in books, or keep them as seeds. Many of his letter correspondents cultivated gardens of their own and experimented with acclimatizing foreign specimens to English soil. Why did Sloane assist the Chelsea Garden at its time of crisis (mentioned in first post) if he was not trying to gain access to a garden of live specimens? How did his apparent abstinence from gardening connect with his support of the Chelsea Garden for the advancement of pubic botanical knowledge?

Sloane valued the plant knowledge that could be obtained from the garden knowing that it would indirectly aid him in his own pursuits as well as the greater scientific community. The published catalogue of the first transfer of fifty specimens (Philosophical Transactions, 1722) stated that Sloane’s motivation was to “encourage and promote an Undertaking so serviceable to the Publick.”

Curiously, there were no records of letter communication from Phillip Miller, the botanist placed in charge of the Chelsea Garden, to Sloane in regards to the Chelsea Garden. It seems most likely that the lack of correspondence reflects Sloane’s close proximity to the garden and opportunities to see Miller in person. (Though, arguably, it might also suggest that Sloane was disconnected from the garden.)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richard Richardson, maintained a garden of his own at his home in North Bierley. His private garden earned a reputation as the best in North England and housed both native and foreign plants, including a hot house for growing exotic fruits. Richardson collected for his garden himself on explorations as well as obtained specimens through his associations with other private and public gardens. From his letters to Sloane, Richardson appears passionate about exotic specimens, whether it was acclimatizing them to English conditions or fabricating greenhouses to mimic their native growing conditions. This was a much different approach to specimens than Sloane’s.

Richardson mentioned his garden in North Bierley several times to Sloane. It contained botanicals that even the Apothecaries’ Chelsea Physic Garden lacked. Richardson obtained plants for his personal garden from public gardens, such as the Edinburgh Physic Garden. This exchange of plants between private and professional gardens is an interesting feature of English gardens.

These private collectors were also part of an exchange network with Dutch and French professional gardens. One reason was that the men who were collecting, like Richardson, had the wealth and leisure to maintain a garden and were associated with scientific societies like the Royal Society of London. Their collection of botanicals was not just for aesthetic reasons or to display their status, but their scientific functions gave collectors the authority and expertise to trade with the professional gardens of physicians and apothecaries.

In a letter to Sloane dated 13 November 1725, Richardson mentioned an “unfortunate accident” that occurred to some “scotch plants” from the Physic Garden at Edinburgh which he “proposed to have brought back … for my garden.” In addition to collecting from other gardens to fill his own, Richardson mentioned also wanting to make his collecting habits useful to others by collecting plants from northern England for the Chelsea Physic Garden and Mr. Miller. Unfortunately, he ran into some difficulties in creating such a relationship with Miller. On 8 April 1727, Richardson wrote about exchanging mosses with Miller for some seeds. On 19 November 1728, Richardson mentioned receiving a list of desired plants from Miller and had been collecting what was still in season from his garden to send to Chelsea.

Richardson’s attempt at a reciprocal relationship of exchange from his garden to the Chelsea public garden soon fell apart. By 16 March 1729, Richardson had stopped receiving letters from Miller. Even after a visit to Chelsea in the summer, during which Miller promised he would send Richardson a letter detailing which plants the garden was lacking, Richardson wrote to Sloane on 3 November 1729 that he had not received a letter of this sort. For some reason, unknown to Richardson, their amicable exchange ceased. (For more on relationship etiquette see this post regarding Abbe Bignon and Sloane).

Richardson sought out associations with other gardens, and he demonstrated great attachment to and took great care with his own garden. It is likely that Sloane received dried plant specimens or seeds from Richardson’s personal garden that had originally come from Miller at the Chelsea Garden, given that he was recieving other dried specimens from Richardson. Other than that, Sloane’s involvement in the Chelsea garden appears to have been kept separate from his desire to collect and classify, stemming instead from his desire to expand the public’s botanical knowledge and to ensure supplies of medical specimens.


On Hans Sloane’s Copies of De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Thanks to Felicity Roberts, I’ve learned that a copy of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome (Basel, 1543) once owned by Hans Sloane went up for auction at Christie’s on 15 July.  Although the list price was a £70,000-£100,000, the book ended up going for £60,000.

Christie’s has just started a Discovery series of short videos to highlight pieces with particularly interesting histories. First up: Sloane’s book! Go take a look at “The ‘Google Maps’ of the Human Body” now.

What I love about this video and post is how well it captures Sven Becker’s enthusiasm when it came to finding something unexpected in the course of researching the book’s provenance. The sale also caused some excitement on the C-18L listserv, with some contributors wondering whether the book had been stolen or its notes forged.

Alison Walker, who leads the British Library’s Sloane Printed Books Project, attended the auction and has been tracing the book’s provenance in more detail. This has required a bit of digging, but the process involved in uncovering a book’s history is fascinating. It’s worth quoting Alison’s findings (which she shared in an email to me) at length. She reports that the book, which was from the Duke of Westminster’s collection,

seems to have been sold as a duplicate by the British Museum in 1769, and appears as lot 336 on p. 12 of S. Baker and G. Leigh, A Catalogue of the Duplicates of the British Museum which will be sold by auction… April 4 1769 and nine following days, London, 1769. Normally one would expect to see a British Museum duplicate sale stamp on the book, but it seems to have been omitted in this case. It is listed on p. 54v of the interleaved copy of J.A. van der Linden, Lindenius renovatus, 1686, which Sloane used as his catalogue of Latin medical books. The book may have been acquired by Sloane in the 1720s or 1730s, though there is no precise acquisition date in his catalogue, and no indication of its previous provenance.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

She has now included the book in the Sloane Printed Books database–a useful tool for suggesting the comings and goings of books in Sloane’s library over the years. (And, believe me, it is easy to lose track of time when playing with the database.)

The British Library still holds several other versions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica once owned by Sloane, including an especially fancy Epitome printed on vellum. And along the way, the British Library has sold off other copies from Sloane’s collection. For example, one 1555 edition of the book now at the Royal Society library was purchased during a duplicate sale in 1830.

Although there was a bit of excited speculation about fraud or theft surrounding this sale, a bit of historical detective work can uncover a much more prosaic explanation. Records do sometimes get lost–or never created, as in this case.

The featured image: putti killing a dog, from book 7 of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1555). Credit: Wellcome Library, London. I’ve always hated putti.

A Most Dangerous Rivalry

By James Hawkes

The Royal Society is in turmoil as competing factions battle for control. Not only is our hero Hans Sloane’s job on the line, but the very existence of the Royal Society hangs in the balance…

 Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

No this is not the TV Guide summary of a niche costume drama, but the results of a bitter dispute between Dr. Hans Sloane and Dr. John Woodward in 1710. Not only did these men have starkly different visions for the future of the Royal Society, but they were competitors for rare curiosities and specimens. It’s perhaps not surprising that the men became rivals! Woodward launched a concerted campaign to unseat Sloane, which nearly succeeded.

Woodward, professor of Physic at Gresham College, championed a highly empirical and experimental approach for the Royal Society. He resented Sloane’s tendency to publish an increasingly ‘miscellaneous’ assortment of articles in  the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions–particularly those written by Sloane’s friends. (This was, admittedly, a complaint even by men who liked Sloane!) Woodward naturally considered the man most disadvantaged by this unjust state of affairs to be himself.  He made it his mission to save the Royal Society from those he feared would undermine the scientific progress of mankind.

Sloane and Woodward actually had much in common: they were both medical doctors with a deep-seated curiosity about the natural world. They were also active in the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Both earned considerable respect for their scholarly endeavours: Sloane, for his botanical work on the West Indies, and Woodward, for his prolific writings, especially on geology. Each man had a circle of scientific contacts across the British Empire and the Continent.

Sloane and Woodward also built impressive collections of natural and antiquarian items, preserved for posterity by (respectively) the British Museum and the Woodward Professorship at Cambridge. Woodward is even on record in a letter to Sloane declaring that he thought himself Sloane’s friend… albeit in the context of trying to explain away intemperate remarks about Sloane.

But the Devil is always in the details. Sloane had a reputation for collecting pretty much anything that fell into his hands. Woodward, however, focused on what he thought to be academically useful. These different approaches helped Woodward to drive a  wedge between Sloane and Sir Isaac Newton (then President of the Royal Society), who had little respect for Sloane’s collecting habits.

The situation finally exploded in 1709 when Sloane, as First Secretary of the Royal Society,  published a book review by Woodward’s long-standing enemy Edward Lhwyd. In his review of the work of a Swiss geologist, Lhwyd went out of his way to ridicule Woodward’s theories. Woodward demanded satisfaction. One contemporary said he did not know if the affair would end

whether by the sword or by the pen. If the former, Dr. Mead has promised to be Dr. Sloane’s second.(Levine)

A distinct possibility for resolving the conflict. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Noodleki

One conflict resolution option. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Noodleki.

Dr. Mead was, of course, another one of the many enemies that Woodward was so good at making. Indeed, ten years later Mead and Woodward duelled to resolve a dispute on the best way to treat smallpox. There are many versions of what happened. According to one, with Woodward defeated Mead bellowed, “Take your life,” to which Woodward replied, “Anything but your Physic.” But that is another story.

In an attempt to keep the bickering between Woodward and Sloane from escalating into violence, Sir Isaac Newton forced Sloane to publish a retraction, indicating he thought some of Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward’s plans to overthrow Sloane nonetheless continued apace. Woodward managed to get a friend, John Harris, elected secretary. He then proclaimed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby that:

Dr. Sloane declared at the next Meeting he would lay down…. He guesses right enough that the next step would be to set him aside.

Woodward and his faction were so confident by this point that he criticised Newton as incapable. Harris even invited Newton’s nemesis, Leibniz, to write for the Transactions. Perhaps Woodward’s ambition was becoming so great that he hoped to be Newton’s successor as President of the Royal Society–an honour that would fall to Sloane much later, in 1727.

The power struggle culminated when Sloane was presenting on bezoars to the Society. Woodward attacked Sloane’s thesis and Sloane, unable to come up with a reply, allegedly resorted to making faces at Woodward.  These grimaces were “very strange and surprising, and such as were enough to provide any ingenuous sensible man to a warmth.”

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If only we knew what the grimace was… Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Council was convened to resolve this controversy once and for all. They debated whether Sloane had actually been making faces and whether Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward seemed on the brink of victory, but then lost his temper when Sloane denied the charges: “Speak sense, or English, and we shall understand you!” Woodward, unwilling to apologize was summarily kicked out. He then claimed that Sloane had packed the Council with his cronies, complaining to no avail of the “Mystery of Iniquity that reigns there.His friend Harris was soon enough replaced and so his entire revolution fell apart.

Although it may be more amusing to think of these eminent doctors as perpetually busy with childish bickering, they were capable of acting professionally on occasion. Even after this great controversy Woodward was willing to recommend  Sloane to a patient and attempted to enlist Sloane’s support to obtain a lucrative new position. Still, their showdown does appear to have put a bit of a damper on their correspondence, and it would seem that their relationship never entirely recovered.

As it happened, with Woodward gone, Sloane and Newton soon fell to sniping at one another. When Sloane was forced to resign as secretary in 1713, Woodward ended up on the side of Sloane against Newton, who Woodward now saw as an evil tyrant holding the Society back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?



Benedict, Barbara. “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012).

Levine, Joseph. Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

MacGregor, Arthur. “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane,” Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. Ed. Arthur MacGregor. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Inspired by the season, I started playing with my database of Hans Sloane’s correspondence to see how many items from The Twelve Days of Christmas to my wondering eyes should appear. Although some substitutions were required, all twelve days are represented—and, in turn, hint at the breadth of Sloane’s collections, medical practice and epistolary network.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… an account of the King hunting partridge from 8 in the morning until four in the afternoon in August 1724. It is unspecified whether any partridge was also in a pear tree. In a stunning twist for the song, George was also hunting rabbits and the trip had to be cut short because of a storm. Safety—and partridges—first, everyone. In any case, the King and his party were very tired after such a long day.

For the second day of Christmas, I found no turtle doves, but there are pigeons. And they are just as good, maybe even better, since I’ve never heard of anyone eating dove. Thomas Hearne, in an undated letter, reported that he was coughing up blood and receiving medical help from the Duchess of Bedford. All he was able to eat was milk and pigeon. Not my usual choice of dinner, but to each one’s own.

For the third day of Christmas, I was unable to locate any foreign hens. There was, however, an odd pheasant hen sent by John Hadley in 1721. He thought that Sloane might enjoy dissecting the hen because her feathers had changed several years previously from the usual hen colours to that of a cockerel.

I hoped to find collie birds (blackbirds) or calling birds (song birds) for the fourth day of Christmas—and I found several of each in one letter! In 1721, Richard Richardson sent Sloane the eggs and nests of several types of birds, including larks, thrushes, crows and blackbirds. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for being so obliging.

Gold ring with container, supposedly--but unlikely--held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Gold ring with container, supposedly–but unlikely–held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But what about five gold rings? I happily settled for one with a fancy, though indecipherable, inscription from Charles Preston in 1699. One ring to rule them all?

The geese, laying or otherwise, posed the greatest trouble. Goose does come up in the database, but only as a description. Mark Catesby in 1724 compared another bird specimen to a goose in size and Emelyn Tanner in 1727 described a deformed baby as having down like a goose.

The only swans mentioned in the letters are pubs, though the drinkers may or may not have been swimming in their drink. For example, Richard Richardson (1729) referred to a carrier from Preston who would be staying at the Swan in Lad Lane, London. Or Antony Picenini stayed at the Swan Tavern in Chelsea, hoping that a change of air would benefit him while he recovered from (unspecified) surgery on his thigh.

There were some maids mentioned in relation to milk, but only one maid doing any milking—in this case, drinking milk rather than fetching it. In 1725, Matthew Combe was treating Sophia Howe, Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline, for a bad cough. The patient had been drinking asses’ milk, commonly given to people suffering from chest troubles.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Although there were no drummers drumming, there is at least a drum. In 1729, Elizabeth Standish of Peterborough was planning to send Sloane “a Negro drum”. No other details were given, such as where the drum came from or how Mrs Standish had acquired it. Could this be the same Akan drum still held at the British Museum?

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

There is only one reference to a piper actually piping. In 1723, Timothy Lovett reported that he had been treating his long-standing phlegmatic cough (forty years) by smoking a pipe: “I have used my selfe to smoking several years about 5 pipes a day but it is ready to make me short breathed. I find it opens and loosens ye body.” Smoking as a cure… it worked until it didn’t, apparently.

Now, the Lords and Ladies were apparently too dignified to mention their leaps and dances to Sloane, but the subject of their exercise does occasionally come up. I offer you one Lord, the Earl of Derby, and one Lady, Lady Clapham. Derby suffered from swelling and bad breathing in 1702. He was “most pusled what to do about exercise, which is so necessary, but the least causes my legs to swell so”. Lady Clapham was also ill in 1702 and her regular physician despaired of the elderly woman’s skin disorder, hard swellings all over her body. He wasn’t sure if “the cause of this disease may proceed from a great stomach & little exercise or a great surfeit of cherries in London”. Tough one…

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth's "Noon", from Four Times of Day (1736).

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth’s “Noon”, from Four Times of Day (1736).

Since I clumped Lords and Ladies together, I’ll end with an 1842 version of Twelve Days which has twelve bells ringing.  After Sloane was elected President of the Royal Society in 1727, the bell-ringers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields honoured him by ringing the bells. St. Giles only has eight bells today and, in 1727, would only have had four bells. But no matter, it’s the thought that counts and a four-bell honour is pretty darned fine!

And on that (ahem) note, I wish a Merry Christmas to all.

How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.

Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.

Strange Pigs

There are strange pig tails in the midnight sun
From men who moil for hog’s stones
The science trails have their secret tales
That would make monstrous piglets groan;
The English nights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that marge on the note of Stephen Gray
Concerned with porcine impersonation.(1)

Pig tales occasionally show up in the Sloane Correspondence, and they are inevitably crackling good fun. But what do pigs have to do with the history of science? A while back, Samantha Sandassie (@medhistorian) wrote a fascinating post on the role of pigs in early modern medical history: besides providing a useful addition to one’s diet, pigs were often the subject of wondrous stories. By the eighteenth century, they were also the subject of Royal Society interests: classifying strange objects from animal bodies, understanding the development of fetal deformities, and analysing the composition of food stuffs.

John Morton, a naturalist who described fossils and wrote The Natural History of Northamptonshire, wrote to Hans Sloane about an extraordinary hog’s stone in April 1703. Morton thanked Sloane for his friendship and promised his service in return; this included sharing his work in progress on fossils. The description of the hog’s stone was, presumably, a taster for Sloane, but Morton also mentioned the possibility of sending it as a gift to the Royal Society. Sloane’s patronage was desirable, but even more so was attracting the interest of the Royal Society, and Morton was successful in both.

On the 30th of November 1703, Morton—nominated by Sloane’s rival, John Woodward—was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. By June 1704, Morton had gifted the stone to the Royal Society after they had favourably received his account of it. A seemingly small offering, perhaps, but one that helped to establish a correspondence that continued for over a decade.

Sloane’s family members also sent him objects of interest. On Sloane’s birthday in 1711, his stepson-in-law John Fuller sent “a Couple of Monstrous Piggs, one of them was farrowed alive the other dead, the sow had six Piggs beside, all of them as they should be”. A quick perusal of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society reveals that monsters remained a source of fascination to the Society throughout the eighteenth century.

Disability and deformity were frequently explained in terms of the influence of maternal imagination: that the pregnant woman either had cravings or had been subjected to extreme emotions, either of which could shape an unborn child. (See, for example, Philip Wilson’s article on maternal imagination and disability.) Fuller’s piglets would have been especially intriguing, given that only two of the sow’s litter had been monstrous. What might the study of deformity in animals mean for the medical understanding of human reproduction? And why, moreover, were traits only passed on to some offspring? Food for thought: a fine gift, indeed, for Sloane!

But the strangest pig tale in the correspondence is from Stephen Gray, who was better known for his work on electricity than porcine expertise. Even so, in the summer of 1700, Sloane requested that Gray send further details about the fat of some pork that he had sent to the Royal Society. Gray denied all knowledge of the pork sample, insisting that either someone had the same name or was impersonating him. A fairly random occurrence that raises so many tantalizing questions: was there another Stephen Gray who was a pork expert? Was this a practical joke? And if so, was it intended for the Society or Gray? And what was its point? In any case, the Society clearly wanted to find out more about the chemical composition of pigs.

These three little pig gifts may seem like small tokens, but reflect the roles of patronage, reputation and curiosity in early eighteenth-century medical and scientific knowledge. Now, if only the joke or insult behind Gray’s impersonation could be deciphered: any thoughts?

[1] With apologies to Robert Service and my father, whose favourite poem is Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. I’d started this post in time for Father’s Day post, but was otherwise occupied at the time and unable to finish it.

Image: Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Problems of an Eighteenth-Century Menagerie

One of my favourite letters in the Sloane Correspondence is a complaint from Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond (ca. 1729-1733).


I received your letter I am obliged to you
for it. I wish indeed it had been the sloath that
had been sent me, for that is the most curious
animal I know; butt this is nothing butt a
comon young black bear, which I do not know what
to do with, for I have five of them already. so pray
when you write to him, I beg you would tell
him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards,
or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.

I am Dear Sir,
Your Faithfull
humble servant

(BL Sloane 4078, f. 66)

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richmond established a well-known menagerie at Goodwood House, Sussex–though it was less famous than his son’s, which included more than one funny-looking Canadian moose. (If you’re interested in the Richmond family’s moose, as immortalized by artist George Stubbs, see Lisa Vargo’s article!)

The Richmond menagerie was by no means unique in Georgian England; the ability to import creatures from across the world expanded rapidly alongside British imperial ambition. Most famous, of course, was the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, which had been around since the thirteenth century and lasted until the 1830s. But across the country, aristocrats kept a wide array of exotic birds and animals by the eighteenth century. For the wealthy, such animal collections revealed their wealth, imperial connections and interests in natural history.

Hans Sloane himself collected living (and dead animals) while he lived in Bloomsbury, as Arnold Hunt reveals over at Untold Lives. As early as 1697, Sloane’s animals were attracting attention. Edward Tyson wrote to Sloane in February after hearing that Sloane’s possum had died. Tyson planned to dissect the animal the next day and wondered if Sloane would join him. In particular, he hoped that Sloane would do some research into what authors had written about possum anatomy. That Sloane’s collection was as likely to include weird pigs and cats as exotic beasts, suggests that his primary interest was to understand and to classify the natural world.

The fascination with strange beasts extended throughout society,  with touring menageries able to attract large audiences. In Man and the Natural World (1983), Keith Thomas recounts a sad case of an elephant that died in 1720 after being exhibited in London, likely made ill by the spectators giving the elephant too much ale to drink. The keepers of travelling menageries, no doubt, were primarily driven by profit. The public interest in the menageries highlights both people’s desire to be entertained and a real curiosity in the natural world beyond Britain.

What of the Duke of Richmond’s motivations for establishing a menagerie, then? The Duke of Richmond’s letter tells us that he was a discerning collector. After acquiring a basic range of powerful creatures that represented the many parts of the globe, Richmond now wanted the more unusual animals. A sloth, for example, would be ideal, being “the most curious creature I know”.  Curiosity was clearly a driving factor for him.

The letter leaves me to wonder what the Duke did with his surplus bears (…and eagles, leopards and tigers), especially given the recent culls at Copenhagen Zoo. Richmond’s description of being “overstock’d” might actually indicate that he kept the animals around. His collection, then, was also about acquisition: six bears might be a bit much, but some duplication was no bad thing. Despite his disappointment in Bear No. 6, the Duke may also have had affection for his unusual pets—shortly before his own death, he had a beloved lioness commemorated in statue-form!

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Collecting animals was not an easy task. A collector might have money and connections, as Richmond did, but that didn’t guarantee that the most-desired animals would arrive. For the Duke’s sake, I hope that the mysterious “he” mentioned in the letter did manage to send back a sloth—because, really, who wouldn’t be charmed by this smiley fellow (or 200 of them)?

This summer, Goodwood House will be holding an exhibition on the Richmond family’s natural history collections.

The Preserved Puppy Proposal

Edmund Curll, a bookseller’s apprentice, wrote to Sloane in 1703 with news of “A Wonderfull production in Nature”: an unusual puppy.

Recently, a Scottish gentleman’s dog had

Whelp’d two Puppies one of them was whelp’d dead and the other that was whelp’d alive being a Male in 24 hours after voided from the fundament another Little Creature wch Liv’d 10 Hours and is now preserv’d in Spirits of Wine.

This, Curll promised Sloane, could “be produced Sr if you please to give yourself the trouble”.

Experiment on a dog. From Joannes Walaeus, Epistola duae, 1651. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Experiment on a dog. From Joannes Walaeus, Epistola duae, 1651. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By 1703, Sloane was already known for his collection of curiosities, but it was in Sloane’s capacity was secretary of the Royal Society that Curll approached him (as the letter’s address specified). Presumably Curll thought that Sloane, in particular, would be unable to resist a strange “Little Creature” born from its mother’s anus.

Dogs, of course, were often used in experimentation, so an unusual specimen may well have been of interest to the Royal Society—though I would have been more curious to examine the mother to determine whether the anal birth had resulted from a congenital problem or an injury caused by the whelping.*

In writing to Sloane, perhaps Curll was hoping to strike up a common interest with a potential patron who was known for buying books as well as oddities—or, maybe, he was just hoping to turn a quick profit on a dead puppy.

Capitalizing on (bad) luck and death was certainly one of Curll’s overall career-building tactics. In 1708, he took over his master’s bookselling after Roger Smith went bankrupt. And his career went from high to high (or low to low), as Curll became infamous as a seller of dodgy remedies to treat venereal problems and a purveyor of cheap dirty books and scandals. He was also known for publishing scurrilous and unverified biographies of recently deceased people, leading physician John Arbuthnot to (allegedly) comment that Curll was “one of the new terrors of death”.

Was it a coincidence that Curll can be spotted trying to sell Sloane a preserved puppy so early in his bookselling life? Or was the puppy a harbinger of Curll’s future approach to his career?

* My internet search history is now filled with some pretty iffy search terms and I’m no wiser, although I suspect an injury. I also discovered that there are a lot of preserved puppies available for sale on ebay and etsy, but no relevant historical pictures of such specimens.

Recording Dr. Sloane’s Medical Advice

Sir Hans Sloane might have collected recipe books in search of knowledge, but patients in turn might record his medical advice for later reference. The Arscott Family’s book of “Physical Receipts”, c. 1730-1776 (Wellcome Library, London, MS 981), for example, contains three recipes attributed to Sloane, which provides snippets of information about his medical practice.

Although Sloane was best known for his botanical expertise and promotion of treatments such as Peruvian Bark or chocolate, the Arscott family recipes show a mixture of chemical, animal and herbal remedies. The treatment for worms (f. 129), for example, combined a mixture of elixir proprietatis and spirit. salis dulcis in either white wine or tea. Together, these aimed to sweeten the blood, strengthen the nerves and fortify the stomach.

A woman is carrying a tray with a cup of chocolate [or maybe the pleurisy remedy?] and a glass on it. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A woman is carrying a tray with a cup of chocolate [or maybe the pleurisy remedy?] and a glass on it. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The pleurisy remedy (f. 156) included pennyroyal water, white wine and “2 small Balls of a sound stone horse”—or, dung from a horse that still had its testicles. This was to be steeped for an hour, then strained. (Apparently this weakened the taste of the dung.) This delicious liquor would keep for three days. Are you tempted? Because the dose was a “large Chocolate Dish fasting in the morning and at 4 in the Afternoon”. “If the Stomach will bear it” (and whose wouldn’t?), the patient was to take the remedy for four to six days in a row. In this remedy, the dung was the most powerful ingredient, as it was considered a sudorific (causing sweat) and resolvent (reducing inflammation) that would aid asthma, colic, inflamed lungs, and pleurisies.

Sloane, of course, was also famed for his eye remedy, which he made public knowledge in 1745 when he published An Account of a most efficacious medicine for soreness, weakness, and several other distempers of the eyes. But how close to the published remedy was the Arscott version?  Fortunately, the most detailed of the three recipes is “Sr Hans Sloane’s Direction for my Aunt Walroud in ye Year 1730–when she perceiv’d a Cataract growing in one of her Eyes” (ff.79-80).

Sloane's remedy would have been preferable to being couched for a cataract. Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane’s remedy would have been preferable to being couched for a cataract. Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Although there are measurements and preparation details, just like a recipe, it was also a summary of Sloane’s successful medical advice to Mrs Walroud. Of course, what early modern patients deemed success in a treatment differs from our modern concept. For Mrs Walroud, it was enough that after she started the treatment at the age of 67, her eyes did not get any worse for ten years and “she could write & read tolerably well”. When she died at the age of 83, she still had some of her sight.

The Arscott instructions begin by recommending that the sufferer have nine ounces of blood taken from the arm and a blister applied behind the ears. Next, take a conserve of rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam (ground human skull mixed with various herbs), eyebright, millipedes, fennel seed and peony syrup. Last, the patient was to drink a julap (medicine mixed with alcohol) of black cherry water, fennel water, compound peony water, compound spirit of lavender, sal volat oleos and sugar. Mrs Walroud took both twice daily and kept a “perpetual Blister between her shoulders”.

One crucial difference between Sloane’s published remedy and the Arscott one is that no mention is made in Mrs Walroud’s treatment of using an ointment made of tutty (oxide of zinc), lapis haematites, aloes, prepared pearl and viper’s grease. Three possibilities for the ointment’s absence occur to me.

  • The Arscott family may have simply assumed that the listed directions were intended to accompany the purchase of Sloane’s ointment and didn’t specify something so obvious.
  • The reference to using the ointment was lost when the instructions had been passed between family members.
  • Or, Sloane did not always prescribe the ointment.

The remaining directions, though, do have overlaps. In his Account, Sloane prescribed drinking a medicine that also contained rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam and eyebright—though he included more ingredients: betony, sage, wild valerian root and castor. This was to be followed by a tea (rather than julap) with drops of compound spirit of lavender and sal volat oleos. In this case, it was the Arscott version that included extra ingredients.

The type of bleeding in the Account was also slightly different than Mrs Walroud’s, with the recommendation that six ounces of blood be taken either from the temples using leeches or by cupping at the shoulders. Sloane’s eye remedy was supposed to be useful for many types of problems, he did not prescribe it exactly the same each time. Variations were possible, according to the patient and the problem.

The Arscott recipes suggest not only what advice from Sloane the family had found most useful, but what sorts of remedies Sloane might prescribe to his patients. But whatever Mrs Walroud’s rave review, the next time I suffer from eye strain at the computer, I won’t be reaching for Sloane’s drink with pulvis ad guttetam and millipedes in a hurry.