Category: Hans Sloane

Grading Sir Hans Sloane’s Research Paper

It’s that time of year when grading is on an academic’s mind. With first-year assignments still fresh in my head, I recently found myself frustrated by Sir Hans Sloane’s “Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane” (Philosophical Transactions, volume 38, 1733-4).

Letters by Sir Hans rarely feature on this blog—and that’s for a good reason: there aren’t very many by him in his correspondence collection. But he did, occasionally, send in reports to the Royal Society… some of which were better than others. I love reading the early eighteenth-century Philosophical Transactions; many of the authors knew how to tell a cracking story, with a clear narrative arc of event, evidence and interpretation.

Not so much this offering from Sloane.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Sloane’s account began in 1729 when “a Person came to consult me on an Accident, that befell four of his Children, aged from four Years and a half, to thirteen Years and a half”. The children decided to have a foraged snack from the fields by St. Pancras Church, thinking that the seeds they’d found were tasty filberts. But foraging can be a risky business and the children took ill. Their symptoms included great thirst, dizziness, blurred vision, delirium and sleepiness. For Sloane, the symptoms suggested henbane poisoning; Sloane’s initial diagnosis was reinforced after examining the seeds that the father had brought in to show him. Sloane prescribed bleeding, blistering at multiple points, and purging at both ends: “And by this Method they perfectly recovered.”

This could have made for a solid medical case study: who better to bring together clinical observation with botanical detective work? But for Sloane, the real story was the seeds rather than his diagnostic prowess. I withheld judgement. At this point, I was curious to see where Sloane, the narrator, would take his readers.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane went on to describe how the symptoms of delirium can offered important clues. Henbane delirium was very different from regular fevered delirium, but had much in common to the delirium caused by datura (“a species of stramonium”) and bang of East-India (“a sort of hemp”–indeed). Unfortunately for the reader, he did not describe any of these forms of delirium.

He then noted that the delirium from all three herbs was different from that “caused by the rubbing with a certain Ointment made use of by Witches (according to Lacuna, in his Version and Comments upon Dioscorides)”. The witches’ ointment instead would “throw the Persons into deep Sleep, and make them dream so strongly of being carried in the Air to distant Places, and there meeting with others of their diabolical Fraternity; that when they awake they actually believe, and have confess’d, that they have performed such extravagent Actions.”

I see. From faux-filberts to witches’ ointment in four easy steps…

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Henbane wasn’t all bad, though. Sloane recounted, for example, that several years before, a “Person of Quality tormented with this racking Pain [of tooth-ache]” was treated by an empiric who used henbane. The sufferer was desperate—“his Anguish obliging him to submit to any Method of procuring Ease”—and he allowed the empiric to funnel smoke into the tooth’s hollow before (allegedly) removing tooth-worms. If this case sounds familiar to regular readers, it should be. Sloane procured one of the maggots from the sufferer, then sent it to Leeuwenhoek who examined it in detail and found it to be an ordinary cheese worm rather than a so-called tooth-worm.

Although Sloane knew that the wormy tale was fake, he pointed out that “upon the whole”, the henbane would have offered pain relief. And in any case, presumably, a good tale about tooth-worms bears repeating. Sloane also took the chance in his conclusion to make a dig at empirics who, through “slight of Hand” acquired a reputation for their remedies’ success, “which from the Prescription of an honest Physician would be taken little Notice of.”

So ends the account


Essay Comments

Sir Hans,

There is much of interest in this paper: your medical cases on henbane and tooth-worms are intriguing and your ability to identify both seeds and poisoning is impressive. I also appreciate the historical perspective that you bring to this study with your discussion of witch ointments.

However, there are a few ways in which this essay could be strengthened. The essay lacks analysis as you move quickly between subjects–a recent case, types of delirium caused by different seeds, and an old case. These are all fascinating issues in their own right, but you lapse into storytelling with each instance without ever going into detail about their significance. For example, in the middle section, you aim to connect different seeds to different types of delirium, but you never provide any discussion about the specifics (apart from the witches’ delirium): how did the childrens’ delirium present? What does delirium caused by bhang or datura look like? In what ways are each of these similar or different? This would help the reader to understand your thought process in diagnosing the patients and in identifying poisons.

It is also worth more carefully considering the title you’ve chosen: “An Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane”. A good title should reflect the content of the essay. However, only the first section of your paper considers symptoms actually caused by eating henbane seeds. The second section is potentially related, but needed to be more closely linked to make the connection clear; this would have been done to good effect by comparing the specifics of each drug and their symptoms to the case of henbane poisoning you introduced. The third section is only tangentially related—although you discuss a medical case and henbane is involved, you consider henbane’s therapeutic qualities rather than symptoms arising from its use. You could usefully have omitted the case in its current state, particularly since the section focuses on making value judgements about empirics and examining tooth-worms. That said, if you really do think it necessary to keep the section, you needed to consider henbane’s effects in more detail. Even more crucially, you might consider changing the title: “An Account of the Effects of Henbane” would have neatly pulled the three strands together in a more coherent fashion.

This essay has the potential to be a wonderful example of your diagnostic and botanical mastery, especially if you took more time to consider the narrative arc. Rather than scattering your energies by telling several stories (henbane, witches or tooth-worms), focus instead on one strand. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn by showing off what you know and how you know it, instead of just sharing a collection of interesting tidbits.

So what grade should we give it…?

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.


Eighteenth-Century English Gardens and the Exchange with Europe

By Chelsea Clark

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Sloane Correspondence is a rich source of information about gardening in the eighteenth century. The science of gardening at this time was a shared experience between friends and colleagues who traded specimens and cultivated their collections with great curiosity. Although gardens could be either privately or publicly managed, the collaborative aspect of gardening served many different purposes depending on the individual collectors or institutions involved.

English gardens were built for multiple purposes, from personal and private pleasure gardens to university organized and maintained medical gardens. Both the Chelsea Garden and several private upper class estate gardens during the latter half of the eighteenth century in Britain were a combination of these purposes. They were both aesthetic and practical, housing rare exotic treasures to display the owner’s status as well as contained local and distant medical botanicals for practical medicinal uses.

Apothecaries and physicians relied on many botanical remedies and thus needed access to gardens. This resulted in many of them becoming expert gardeners. According to a Parisian physician at the time, Jean Fernel, a competition between apothecaries and physicians inspired an invigorating cultivation of gardens with both common and acclimatized plants in order to maintain “dignity and authority” over the other.[1]

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Chelsea physic garden was originally property of the apothecaries of London, though it fell on hard times in the early eighteenth century. Physician, Sir Hans Sloane, become benefactor to the garden because he saw the value in the botanicals it provided and its potential to provide benefical botanical knowledge for the public. Sloane saw the importance of the garden for all types of medicinal use as well as for the maintenance and growth of botanical trading within England, Europe, and the newly acquired Colonies.

In 1722, Sloane leased a parcel of his land in Chelsea to the Company of Apothecaries of London on the condition that they maintain the garden for “physick” and send the Royal Society fifty specimens per year until 2000 specimens had been given.[2] The reason given for requiring the annual gift of specimens was to encourage the constant growth of the garden and to ensue it continued to be used for its proper purpose.[3]

French gardens were similarly split between public and scholarly gardens, however French gardens were steeped in state involvement with the promotion and running of gardens. The Jardin du Roi, established in 1640, was in name and function the garden of the French King, Louis XIV.  It was also used by the Academie des Sciences for their exploration and acclimatization of botanicals and open to the public. The garden was maintained under state direction, as was the search and collecting of new specimens to fill the garden. It was managed as an economy that was “simultaneously social, financial and natural historical.”[4]

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

French botanical collecting was tied to their colonial expansion and French collectors were most interested in botanicals with economic value.[5] As a result of higher state involvement, French motivations were focused on economic gain rather than scientific curiosity; collecting and cataloging the world’s botanicals was less of a priority, resulting in the cultivation of different types of plants than in England, which centered on medicinal rather than economical specimens.

The discussions about gardens between Sloane and many of his British correspondents did not mention any state support or involvement. Their collecting appeared to be motivated by a desire to discover all the local and exotic species and where they were naturally found. As was the case for France, English collecting in its colonies did have an economic component; however, the perceived economic value of plants was not mentioned as the primary motivator of botanical collectors.

Without immediate state direction both personal and professional English gardens became significant players in the European exchange of botanicals. English private collectors and gardeners were successful at expanding their knowledge of species and contributing to scientific knowledge, while the French were successful at extracting economic value from their exploration of plants. Even though the French gardens were open to the public, the English exchange relationship between the personal collectors and the professional gardens allowed for information about botanicals to spread freely and the development of gardens across England. English gardens had perhaps less economic value than their French counterparts, but provided an abundance of natural history knowledge and practical medicinal value for its public.


[1] Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange New Haven: Yale University Press, (2007): 31.

[2] Isaac Rand, “A Catalogue of Fifty Plants Lately Presented to the Royal Society, by the Company of apothecaries of London ; Pursuant to the Direction of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Bresident of the College of Physicians and Vice President of the Royal Society,” Philosophical Transactions, 32 (1722).

[3] Ruth Stungo, “The Royal specimens From the Chelsea Physic Garden, 1722-1799,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 47, no. 2 (July 1993): 213.

[4] E. C. Spary, Utopia’s Garden Chicago: Chicago University Press, (2000): 51.

[5] Spary, “ “Peaches which the Patriarchs Lacked”: Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Natural Economy in France,” History of the Political Economy 35, 2003: 14-41.

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.

Bad Blood and Indecent Expressions

By Matthew DeCloedt

Standing before the Jamaican government’s ‘Councill’ in the spring of 1689, an unnamed doctor explained how comments spoken under his breath could have been construed as defamatory. He was, the man said, simply unhappy with how the administration had treated him and might have accidentally said as much in the presence of others.

Bow Street. Credit:

Bow Street Trial. Credit:

Allegations of slander and libel were common features of public life in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies. Manuals were even available to help those accused of having spoken ill of the government defend themselves.[1]

Proof, in the form of witness testimony or a presumption of law, was required to convict an accused of libel in the 1680s. Such evidence established the defendant had the requisite state of mind when publishing defamatory material.[2] Without prima facie proof of sedition in the form of a printed text, the Council needed witnesses to substantiate the charge. In this case, it was the doctor’s word against his accusers’.

According to a letter written by H. Watson, resident of Jamaica, the doctor accounted for his actions before the tribunal by stating:

yt on ye sight of ye fleet sailing away [from Jamaica], & ye paym’t of his money not secured he might passionatly utter many indecent expressions, but not intentionally.

The doctor appealed to the rash character in every reasonable person, arguing that such sentiments could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hans Sloane must have disagreed, for it appears that he himself levelled the allegation against the doctor.

Sloane’s accusation of slander was substantiated by two witnesses who claimed they “heard [the doctor] say ye very same he spoke [to Sloane], w’ch they declared on their oaths”. Fortunately for the doctor, “severall witnesses… who were [near]by… either did not hear or would not remember w’t he spoke”.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Watson does not divulge the Council’s final determination, so it is unclear whose word convinced it one way or the other. Regardless, the doctor claimed he would appeal to the Prince of Orange if he were found culpable. He expected “sudden releif from Coll Molesworth who is expected here [in Jamaica] w’th as much earnestness, as ye Turks expect Mahomet”.[3] In Watson’s view, therefore, relief was not anticipated anytime soon.

Was Sloane simply a patriot, unwilling to abide a slight against the Crown? Or, was there bad blood between himself and the doctor?

In the Natural History of Jamaica Sloane relays an account of one ‘Sir H. M. aged about 45, lean, sallow, coloured, his eyes a little yellowish, and belly a little jutting out, or prominent’. The Gentleman’s Quarterly claimed some years later that this patient of Sloane’s was Sir Hender Molesworth, not Sir Henry Morgan, as was previously supposed.

If this is true, Molesworth was one of Sloane’s patients and followed his instructions for a time. He seemed to be improving, but grew frustrated with the slow progress and consulted another physician. According to Sloane, his condition was not ameliorated by his personal habits. Perhaps it was the fact that he was unable

to abstain from Company, he sate up late, drinking too much, whereby he[…] had a return of his first symptoms.[4]

Sloane implored Molesworth to listen to his advice. Dr. Rose shared Sloane’s view and they convinced him to follow their directions once again.

Molesworth was getting better, but took a turn for the worse: “On this alarm he sent for three or four other Physitian”. The latter came to a conclusion that contradicted Sloane. The treatment Molesworth followed “almost carried him off”. Instead of going back to Sloane, he contracted a black doctor and his condition grew worse still. Finally: “He left his Black Doctor, and sent for another, who promis’d his Cure, but he languished, and his Cough augmenting died soon after.”

Molesworth died July 27, 1689. This is shortly after Watson’s letter reached Sloane, so it is possible that nothing ever came of Sloane’s accusation. Sloane might have taken offence at being replaced by a black doctor, choosing to exact revenge through trumped-up charges of treason. Whatever the case, there was likely a personal angle to the matter and Sloane does not seem to have acted as a disinterested protector of the Crown. Molesworth may have uttered indecent expressions, but Sloane was just as willing to dispense with good manners and reply in kind.

[1] C. R. Kropf, “Libel and Satire in the Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 8, 2 (1974-5), 153.

[2] Philip Hamburger, “The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press”, Stanford Law Rev (1985), 707.

[3] Could ‘Coll Molesworth’ have been a relation of Sir Hender Molesworth, whom he expected would come to his rescue?

[4] Sir Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London: B.W., 1707), Volume 1, xcviii-xcix.

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.

Storms, Sounds and Authorship

The wind has been wildly whipping the last few days, putting me on edge. It doesn’t help that the wind makes the neighbourhood noisier than usual: clanking gates, blowing cans… The normally distant rumble of the tube train suddenly passes right down our street, while the planes seem to fly right over our roof. The weather can do funny things to sound.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Back in 1708, William Derham was inspired by his observations on weather and sound to publish on the motion of sound in the Philosophical Transactions. Derham’s letters to Sloane show how Derham had carefully thought about the subject for years before his article appeared. Academic writers will have much sympathy for Derham’s path toward publication.

In January 1704/5, Derham was confident that he was “setteling the business of the Flight of Sounds, which may be of good use”. He had ten questions and was happy to add more if anyone in the Royal Society had any; by the time he published, there were nineteen questions. Derham was charting the sound of gunfire to determine what factors affected sound, such as the type of winds and weather, size of gun, time of day, and direction of the shot.

Many credible authorities, from the Florentine Academy to Isaac Newton, had differed on the question of “What Space Sounds fly in a Second or any determinate Time?” To settle the matter, Derham repeated their experiments and at greater distances. The answer seemed close:

I have allmost satisfied my self about all the former Enquiries, which when I have fully done I will impart it to the Society. I only want a few Guns from the Tower or some such large distance (which I could see in the Evening) to fully confirm what I have already done.

Derham was more guarded by April 1705. He reported that he was not as close to finishing his experiments as he’d hoped. Having met “with fresh matters” that nobody had ever observed before, he was “cautious of determining any thing precipitatly; & therefore I shall yet delay giving the Society an account of what I have done”.

Lithograph by C.H. Bacle,  19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A light-hearted picture, but I hasten to add that Derham did not use women’s skirts to test his theories on sound. Lithograph by C.H. Bacle, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

What he could tell them was that “Storms do accelerate Sounds, wch I did not discover (only suspect) till last Fryday” when he had been timing the sound of guns fired at Blackheath. Contrary winds resulted in delays, while high winds sped the sounds up. But to test his theory, he needed more guns. Derham reassured Sloane that he would “use my greatest care in all this matter” because his newest observations differed so greatly from those of others–and “perhaps the Societys reputation my be somewhat hurt by any neglect or want of an act”.

In December 1706, Derham was still working on the project. He had only just found “an excellent semi-circle to take the Angles, & thereby the distances of the places from whence I observed the Flight of Sounds”. This, he noted, “was the only thing that hath delayed the me from imparting my Observations on that subject.” And in April 1707, he referred in passing to using triangulation to measure sound.

Finally, Derham sent off his observations in February 1707/8. His letter hints at his relief, as well as his hope that the article would be published as soon as possible.

I have sent you my Observations about Sounds; which as it hath cost me some pains, so I hope will be acceptable to you, & the most illustrious Society. If you think it worth publishing in the Transactions, I desire you will be pleased to put it into one of the next.

A week later, Derham’s anxiety emerges more clearly when he wondered whether Sloane had even received the article: “Be pleased to let me know whether you recd my account of Sounds with my Packet of Lrs from Florence.”

The article was intended to be Derham’s Important Work (and it was), appearing as it did in Latin rather than the English he usually used for his Phil. Trans. submissions. It also took up a full thirty-three pages. With his careful measurements, increased distances, and use of instruments, Derham provided a more accurate assessment of the speed of sound than previous scholars.

It’s just a shame that Derham never mentioned his mysterious Japanese (?) co-author anywhere in his letters to Sloane…

According to a data entry howler error in the online Phil. Trans., Soni Motu was the first author on the article. How’s that for revisioning history?

Soni Moto

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.