Category: Hans Sloane

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.

Bethlem Bed Shortages in the Eighteenth Century

I just read an excellent post by Jennifer Evans (@historianjen) over at earlymodernmedicine on a sad case of madness from Hans Sloane’s correspondence. Go read the post in full, but to sum it up: over several months in 1714, the Earl of Derby was attempting to care for John Getting, who was in clearly declining mental health. The Earl wondered about the possibility of committing Getting to Bethlem, as the case had become too difficult to manage. Although the outcome can’t be traced, Evans wonders if Getting was admitted to Bethlem Hospital (also known as Bethlehem or Bedlam).

Maybe. Getting doesn’t appear in the letters again–but being admitted to Bethlem was not easy, nor did it provide long-term care.

We regularly complain about hospital bed shortages, but the situation was even more complicated in the eighteenth century! Mental health care primarily occurred in the home, although Bethlem Hospital and private care were an option for more difficult cases. There were few charitable hospitals overall and a chronic shortage of space. The early eighteenth-century Bethlem, for example, had only just over 100 places.[1] (The population of London in 1715 was around 630,000, but to make matters more complicated, Bethlem patients like Getting might come from outside of London.)

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields, London: seen from the south, with three people in the foreground. Etching by J. T. Smith after himself, 1814. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam] at Moorfields, London: seen from the south, with three people in the foreground. Etching by J. T. Smith after himself, 1814. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Bethlem was able to remain a charitable hospital largely through its fundraising: it doubled as a tourist attraction for rich and poor alike, with visitors expected to leave donations. Frenchman Cesar de Saussure, for example, described his tour of Bethlem. On the first floor, visitors could look in the little windows of cells at “these poor creatures” or, in the big gallery, pass by the “many inoffensive madmen” allowed to walk around. Cells on the second floor held “dangerous maniacs, most of them being chained and terrible to behold”. The building may have been grand, but it was a “melancholy abode”.

Patients being assessed could stay at Bethlem, but that did not always result in admission, as this fascinating case from Bethlem Blog suggests. Admission into most early eighteenth-century English hospitals was granted through patronage or—in the case of the Foundling Hospital (founded 1741)—by lottery. As a physician for Christ’s Hospital (1694-1730) and on the Board of Governors for St. Bartholomew’s, Sloane was frequently asked for assistance in obtaining admission for patients. But as the post on Getting reveals, admission to Bethlem could be helped by a charitable donation—and, perhaps, the assistance of important patrons like Sloane and Derby.

Another case from the Sloane correspondence, however, suggests the difficulty of finding long-term care for those in dire need. Ambrose Godfrey, a chemist well-known to Sloane for his analysis of the properties of stones and waters, wrote a distressed letter to Sloane in July 1724 on behalf of Mr. Steiger (an engraver).

Godfrey had known Mrs. Steiger and her brother well for nearly forty years, but the brother “had lost his understanding” and the family hoped to have him admitted to Bethlem. The Bethlem physician, however, “refuses it, alledging that there is no roome”. Godfrey hoped that a letter from Sloane might help. The situation was, indeed, dire.

He has been already been ones before in Bedlem & was sent out as cured. But being now as bad as ever & Threatning to stab them, haveing done already very dangerous things, it would be great charity good S’r if you could be instrumentall to get him in again, the dangerous prancks he has played will else be the ruin of my friend who has already the Burthen & care of 3 of this mad mans children upon his back.

It’s clear that in helping the Steiger family, Godfrey was asking Sloane for a very personal favour: “I am deeply concerned for them”, he wrote, and “it would be as much satisfaction to me see their request fulefilled, as if they ware relations of my own”. In the event that personal recommendation was insufficient, Godfrey also pointed out the brother’s good reputation. He had “ben a man of much credit & served all the offices in ye parish of Gracion’s street”.

Statues of "raving" and "melancholy" madness, each reclining on one half of a broken segmental pediment, formerly crowning the gates at Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. Engraving by C. Warren, 1808, after C. Cibber, 1680. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Statues of “raving” and “melancholy” madness, each reclining on one half of a broken segmental pediment, formerly crowning the gates at Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital. Engraving by C. Warren, 1808, after C. Cibber, 1680. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

So why the stickiness over admissions and the insistence in discharging an obviously ill patient? A charitable hospital like Bethlem needed to show that it was successful in curing people in order to attract patronage. To that end, according to Bethlem Blog, those patients accepted into Bethlem were most likely to be easily treatable within a year or two. It was not until the late 1720s that Bethlem opened an “incurable” ward—and that was only available to patients already in the hospital. After a year of treatment and assessment, severely ill patients might be transferred to the ward.

Might. The waiting list to enter the ward was long.

It’s hard to say what happened to either Getting or Mrs. Steiger’s brother, but their sad cases predated the incurable ward. At best, if the men were admitted to Bethlem, the Steiger family and Earl of Derby might have had a couple years respite; in the brother’s case, this might even have coincided with the opening of the new ward. At worst? Well, the Earl had the inclination, money and assistance to continue helping Getting. As for the Steiger family, however, I dread to think. Mrs Steiger’s brother was a danger to the family: the costs of caregiving for a family could be high, indeed.

[1] Christine Stevenson, “Robert Hooke’s Bethlem”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 55, 3 (1996): 254–275.

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.

An Eighteenth-Century Love Story

The Newdigate family became Hans Sloane’s patients around 1701, starting with Lady Frances Sedley (née Newdigate), her husband, and father-in-law. By 1705-6, Sloane was treating Elizabeth Newdigate (b. 1682) for colic, hysteria and fever (BL Sl. MS 4076, 1 July 1705, f. 173; 4077, 21 December 1706, f. 164). But Elizabeth’s complaints went far beyond the medical.

A letter of 1 November 1706 detailed her illness, penury, and unhappy family situation. Specifically, she blamed the “distruction of my health if not to the loss of life” on her brother and sisters who were “miserably unkind” to her. This was partly financial, as her brother Dick

wou’d not help me to one peny of money when I was sick in London but forsed me to borow of strangers.

Dick had apparently even written to “all my Relations [that] I unjustly demanded mony of him when he was not in my debt”.

But the siblings were being unreasonable in another way, too. They had dismissed her illness, telling everyone “that I was distracted and had no illness but that of being in love”. She swore innocence in the matter, insisting that she had not even really spoken to the man.

Theodore Lane, A young woman escapes down a rope of sheets, intending to elope with her lover, n.d. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Theodore Lane, A young woman escapes down a rope of sheets, intending to elope with her lover, n.d. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of course, she must have done… or perhaps her siblings had put the idea of an unsuitable match into head. A year later, she married Abraham Meure, the son of a Huguenot schoolmaster–self-styled a “Gent.” in the marriage contract of 3 September 1707 (Warwickshire County Record Office, CR 136 C2734).

For a woman from a good gentry family, this was a bad choice of husband. A torn-out page from the family Bible makes clear that Elizabeth had “married herself” (WCRO, CR 136/B830). Her father made the point again in the marriage settlement, promising “That for and notwithstanding the consent and good likeing of the said Sr Richard Newdigate is not obtained”, he would still pay her portion. Abraham, nonetheless, does appear to have been a man of some means. Not only did he renounce his claim on and interest in Elizabeth’s portion, “out of the great love and affection” he had for her, but he would provide an annuity of £300.

Elizabeth’s letter reads like a cry for pity.  Perhaps, by playing upon her defenselessness, she hoped to persuade Sloane to mediate on her behalf. Given her eventual success in marrying Abraham, it is entirely possible that Sloane did help. Sloane certainly continued on as physician to the Newdigate and Meure families. And over time, Abraham became a close member of the family, helping his brother-in-law William Stephens during financial difficulties.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth and Abraham’s match was short-lived. Elizabeth died on 9 July 1710, just two weeks after giving birth to their son John.

The Problem of Mad Dogs in the Eighteenth Century

Surgeon John Burnet shared “a very strange account” with Sir Hans Sloane in March 1720. The tale, sent to the French Académie des Sciences, had come straight from the Czar of Muscovy (Peter the Great) himself. Apparently,

a Man was bitt by a Mad-dog & that he lay with his wife the same night & after three fitts dyed, but that his wife was brought to bed nine weeks afterwards of five puppies.

Curious, indeed. Did this mean that rabies (or hydrophobia, as it was called) might be spread like a venereal disease? Or that the dog-bite had transmitted canine qualities into the infected man, which he then passed on to his offspring? Burnet was sceptical about account, noting “how far this is true, I know not”, but similar stories could be found in the Philosophical Transactions.

Rabies: Slaying a mad dog. From Dioscordes, Acera de la materia medicinal y de los venenos, 1556. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Rabies: Slaying a mad dog. From Dioscordes, Acera de la materia medicinal y de los venenos, 1556. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Physician Martin Lister, for example, wrote “An Observation of Two Boys Bit by a Mad Dog” (1698). Back in 1679, two boys aged nine and ten washed the head wounds of a dog that had been bitten by a mad dog. The injured dog was saved, but several months later, the boys became ill with stomach pains and convulsions.

What suggested a diagnosis of hydrophobia was that, by August 1680, the boys feared the water and had become, well, a bit dog-like. They regularly went into simultaneous fits that would last an hour, during which time “the Eldest especially, snarled, barked and endeavoured to bite like a Dog”. By September, “they became more wild” and, even after the fits had passed, could not endure the company of people. They had become more animal than human. The case seemed dire, but the boys were on the mend by the end of September.

Clergyman and antiquary, Abraham de la Pryme, wrote to Sloane in 1702 about a 1695 case from his brother’s household (see also Phil. Trans. 23, 1702-3). De la Pryme noted the regularity of timing in several cases, but was particularly intrigued by the way that tiny “Particles of this Poyson” could spread to infect a “mass of particles millions of times bigger”.

This case started with a “pretty grey-hound Bitch that had Whelps” being bitten by a mad dog. Three weeks later, the greyhound also went mad and had to be put down. The puppies appeared well and were looked after, but (again) three weeks later, “all pull’d out one anothers throats except one”. This one continued to eat, but would drink no liquid. Two servants caring for the puppy stuck their fingers into its mouth to check for a blockage, but there was none. The puppy soon went mad.

Three weeks later, both servants became ill. One, “a most strong and laborious Man”, managed to sweat off his symptoms: acute headache, tightened throat and red eyes (which makes me think of Black Shuck’s fiery eyes). But the fourteen-year old apprentice was much sicker. He became so savage that it took four adult men to hold him down

and all his discourse was of fighting, and how if that they would but let him alone, he would leap upon them, and bite, and tear them to pieces.

He soon lost his ability to speak altogether (one of the marks of humanity), then died.

The economic problem of the disease was obvious, as it could easily spread to livestock. In George Dampier’s recipe for rabies (published in the Phil. Trans.), Dampier reported that his remedy “did [his neighbours] a Hundred Pound’s Worth of Good” during a local outbreak when it saved their cattle.

But the social consequences of transmission was even more worrying. Rabies was, after all, considered a type of poison (see here and here), but so too was venereal disease, which could also be passed to one’s offspring. The real fear? That the mad animal’s qualities might be passed on to the human—or, worse yet, the victim’s children.

As De la Pryme concluded in his account, it was a pity “that the most Noble of creatures lyes at the Mercy of the most ignoble of particles”, but a wonder “that a few Atoms should be able to destroy a whole world”.

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.

Mary Davis, the horned woman

By Felicity Roberts

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

At the British Museum, near the centre of the Enlightenment Gallery in wall press 156, there is a portrait in oils of a woman with what appear to be horn-like growths coming from the side of her head.  The woman has an arresting, impassive facial expression.  She wears no cap, so her head is exposed to the viewer, but she is demurely dressed, with her left arm drawn up and across her body so that her hand rests firmly on her collar. She seems to wait patiently for our observation of her to end.

The inscription on the painting reads:

“This is the portraiture of Mary Davis, an inhabitant of Great Saughall near Ches[ter.]  Was taken Ano. Dom. 1668, Aetatis 74 when she was 28 years old an excrescence rose uppon her head which continued thirty years like to a wen then grew into two hornes after 5 years she cast them then grew 2 more after 5 years she cast them. These uppon her head have grown 4 years and are to be seen […cropped]”.

Today we would say that Mary Davis had developed cutaneous horns.  It is a relatively rare condition in which a lesion or lesions develop on the skin, usually around the face or neck, sometimes protruding several centimetres.  Such lesions occur more frequently in older people and on commonly exposed parts of the body. Although their cause has been linked with sun exposure, underlying skin tumours has also been suggested.  Even with these medical explanations, a person who develops cutaneous horns today may still be the subject of news reports likening their appearance to that of the devil.

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, such persons were treated as both wonders and anomalies of nature [1].  That is to say, their condition was interpreted as both a religious portent and a natural phenomenon.  Davis herself was, as an aging widow, exhibited at the Swan pub on the Strand where members of the public could come to see “such a Wonder in Nature, as hath neither been read nor heard of […] since the Creation” [2].  Yet her portrait was also collected by natural philosophers, and the horns she shed entered various cabinets of curiosity, including, it seems, the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum. Both these specimens are now lost [3].  The interest shown in Davis’ condition is a good example of the overlap that existed between popular and scientific culture in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Sir Hans Sloane certainly had an interest in curious objects, especially ones which seemed to transgress the boundaries between human and animal, natural and monstrous.  He owned a horn shed by a Mrs French of Tenterden which he entered as specimen 519 in his Humana MS catalogue [4].  He also apparently owned the Mary Davis portrait.  In a letter of August 1709 Sloane’s friend Dr Richard Middleton Massey wrote:

“I have been in Cheshire & Lancashire, where I think I have mett with a curiosity, tis an originall picture in oil paint of Mary Davis the Horned Woman of Saughall in Cheshire”

Sloane must have indicated an interest in the portrait to Massey, because in a follow up letter of October 1709 Massey wrote:

“I will send up ye picture the first opportunity if you please call upon Mr Dixon at the Greyhound in Cornhill”

This must be the portrait which now hangs in the Enlightenment Gallery.  Did Sloane also own Mary Davis’ horn, which also entered the British Museum but was subsequently lost?  I have found no evidence for this in the letters as yet!

The provenance of the British Museum’s painting of Davis has long been shrouded in mystery.  Its Collection Online entry states it could have come from either Dr Richard Mead or Sloane.  But I think these Sloane letters suggest that the painting was Sloane’s before it became the Museum’s.


[1] For further information, see Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the order of nature 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001).

[2] J. Morgan (ed.), Phoenix Britannicus: being a miscellaneous collection of scarce and curious tracts […] collected by J Morgan, Gent (London, 1732), 248-250.

[3] Jan Bondeson, ‘Everard Home, John Hunter and cutaneous horns: a historical review’, American Journal of Dermatopathology 23 (2001), 362-369.

[4] Natural History Museum, Sloane MS Catalogue of Fossils, 6 vols. Vol 1, f. 344r.

Sir Hans Sloane, Abbé Bignon and Mrs. Hickie’s Pigeons

In 1720, Dr. Den. Hickie complained to Sloane about an ongoing dispute with a neighbour:

the Lord of the Manor who is intent upon me as a stranger to do me prejudice & particularly in destroying a few pigeons that my wife has always kept without molestation since first shee bought her estate in this Countrey.

The country in this case referred to France, not just the countryside. Dr and Mrs Hickie had moved to Meulan sur Seine from London. It was “the profes that you have given me of your friendship whilest I resided & practiced in London”, Hickie wrote, that “encourages me to take the liberty of importuning you at present”. Hickie reminded Sloane that the friendship had not been one way, as he had been sending his observations to the Royal Society on Sloane’s directions.

Sloane might not seem the obvious choice to assist with a neighbourly dispute in France, until Hickie specified who is neighbour was: one of the Abbé Bignon’s brothers. By 1720, Sloane and the Abbé had been regular correspondents for over twenty-five years (which Ann-Marie Hansen discusses in another post). Although Hickie had met the Abbé in person and been received upon Sloane’s “acc[oun]t wth a great deal of civility & friendship”, he clearly was not in a position to ask the Abbé directly for assistance. But he hoped that Sloane would intercede with the Abbé on his behalf:

a word speakeing from the Abbé at his Brother is enough to free me from the disturbance that this man designes to give me therefore I hope that you’ld contribute to protect me by your recommendation.

This is a letter that highlights the complicated routes that patronage might take. One could not just approach someone of the Abbé’s standing on a limited acquaintance, especially in France where the rules of patronage were even more stringent than in England. An intermediary was crucial. And who better than the one who had introduced Hickie to the Abbé in the first place?

But… it’s really the dispute over pigeons in this letter that captures my interest.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Pigeons were not just valuable livestock, but one that owners (or “fanciers” as they even called themselves in the 1700s) seemed to hold in great affection. The most common use of pigeons was for food, which provided a steady supply of meat year round. In his Columbarium: or, the pigeon-house (London, 1735),

John Moore argued that pigeon dung was particularly important for fertilizing crops, making medicines, tanning leather and producing salt-petre. The dung was so good that it “challengeth the Priority, not only of the Dung of Fowls, but of all other Creatures whatsoever, on the accont of its usefulness in human Life.” Moore’s chapter on treating pigeon distempers suggests the lengths that fanciers might go to care for their pigeons: special diets, imported ingredients (such as tobacco) and attentive nursing. The attack on Mrs Hickie’s pigeons must have been upsetting for the Hickies on several levels.

Alhough Hickie suggested that Bignon was attacking the pigeons because the Hickies were not local (a natural fear for anyone living in a foreign land), the reasons are likely far more complicated. Whereas there were no regulations on who might own pigeons in eighteenth-century England, French law was very clear–only lords of the manor had the right to keep or kill pigeons. This feudal right was considered to be such a fundamental mark of inequality that it was revoked in the second article of the 4 August Decrees of 1789, which were passed by the National Assembly to settle peasant unrest in the countryside during the French Revolution.

It’s unclear which brother Hickie meant, but all three brothers were firmly entrenched in the aristocracy: Louis was the Major General of the King’s Armies, Jérôme III was the Intendant of Amiens and Armand Roland was the Intendant of Paris. Such men would not have looked kindly upon mere commoners, however well-to-do, keeping pigeons.

Hickie may have been astute enough to spot the need for an intermediary in the dispute, but he had made a classic ex-pat mistake of fundamentally missing an important cultural difference. What would have been a simple matter of bad neighbourliness in England was at the heart of aristocratic privilege in France.