Category: Hans Sloane

A Welsh Doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, and the disappearing catheter

By Alun Withey

Editor’s note: Alun would like to warn all readers that this post contains some graphic description of a particularly uncomfortable surgical technique…

Woodcut preparatio of patient for lithotomy, 1628. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Woodcut preparatio of patient for lithotomy, 1628. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1720, Dr. Alban Thomas was something of a high-flyer. The son of a Pembrokeshire cleric and poet, Alban first matriculated from Oxford in 1708, became librarian of the Ashmolean museum, assistant secretary of the Royal Society and, if that wasn’t enough, obtained his doctorate in medicine from Aberdeen in 1719. At a time when Wales was still a largely rural country, with no medical institutions of its own and fairly poor transport and road infrastructures, these were exceptional achievements for a boy from Newcastle Emlyn.

Also unusual was that Alban appears to have returned to Wales to set up his medical practice; many Welsh practitioners who had trained in Oxford or London chose not to return, choosing the potentially more lucrative market of the larger English towns. Nonetheless, especially in and around the growing Welsh towns, there was still a relatively wealthy Welsh elite to cater for and some, like Alban, positioned themselves to serve the denizens of large estates and houses.

It is clear, though, that Alban still had connections. One of his correspondents was no less a luminary than Sir Hans Sloane, the Irish physician to the fashionable and, indeed, the royal and, later, president of the Royal Society. Surviving letters from Alban Thomas to Sloane suggest that theirs was a fairly regular correspondence, with Sloane acting in an advisory role for particular cases. It is one particular case that interests us here.

In November 1738, Alban Thomas wrote to Sloane regarding a patient, Sir Thomas Knolles of Wenallt, Pembrokeshire, who was causing him concern. Knolles, although “a person of great worth, candour and humanity” was also

a person of very gross habit, of body an unusual size and make and about 20 stone weight with an appetite to his meat but very moderate in his drinking.

Knolles enjoyed exercise but, due to his size, this was often done on horseback.

At some stage, Knolles had become ‘dropsicall’ and suffered from swollen legs. The doctor used a combination of diuretics and tight, laced stockings to countermand this with, he reported, some success as Knolles returned to health, requiring only the odd purge as a ‘spring clean’. About four years previously however Knolles had begun to complain of a swelling in his scrotum, which Alban Thomas assumed to be hydrocele–a condition causing grossly swollen testicles (sometimes treated by injecting port wine into the testicles). After drawing off “about a quart of limpid serum” from the stoic Knolles’ testicles followed by the application of a dressing, and strict recovery routines, the doctor hoped that he had cured the condition for good. This proved to be premature.

When Knolles began to complain sometimes of not being able to pass urine at all, at others a few drops and occasionally losing his bladder control entirely, he took it upon himself to get a second opinion from an unnamed doctor in nearby Haverfordwest. This physician prescribed a ‘Turbith vomit’ which wrought well and even caused Knolles to void a stone about the size of a kidney bean. Rather than being put off by this occurrence, Knolles was encouraged and began to pester Dr Thomas to give him more of these treatments. Unimpressed and undeterred, Thomas decided on a more proactive course. After putting Knolles on a course of diuretic medicines, liquors and balsams for a week he brought in to his consulting room. What happened next highlights the particular horrors of early modern surgery.

Left, Raw's grooved catheter; right, bladder of a male. Engraving with etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Left, Raw’s grooved catheter; right, bladder of a male. Engraving with etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When Knolles arrived, Dr Thomas first applied a Turbith vomit, hoping that “so rugged a medicine” would clear the blockage without the need for more invasive procedures. It didn’t. In fact, the symptoms grew worse. It was at this point that Dr Thomas reached for his catheter and introduced it into the unfortunate Sir Thomas’s member. Expecting some resistance, he was surprised to find that the catheter went in without resistance.

On the contrary it seemed to force itself out of my fingers after passing the neck of the bladder as if it was sucked in, which I thought was owing to the pressure of his belly, the crooked end was now upward.

Yes, you read it right. The catheter was ‘sucked’ out of the doctors fingers and upwards further into the bladder! Now, any male readers may want to cross their legs!

In an attempt to probe for the stone that he feared was lurking in the bladder, and to release some water, Dr Thomas decided to turn the catheter around. At this point, the poor patient “cryed out with some violence…TAKE IT OUT I CAN BEAR IT NO LONGER”. Happily for Knolles the catheter came out “with as much ease as it went in without one drop through it or immediately after it”.

Three months later, the patient was still suffering, with the addition of great pain, defying all attempts for his relief. Despite being a “hail, hearty man having good lungs but lyable to hoarseness” and the occasional cold, Alban Thomas perceived him to be a healthy man. His efforts to treat Knolles had so far failed and he appealed to the eminent Sloane to help him “form a right judgement in this case”.

And so we leave the story there. What happened to Knolles is unclear, but the pain of his condition can only have been matched by the pain of his treatment. Suffering a succession of violent vomits, pills, electuaries and, finally, a wandering catheter, it is almost amazing to think that he ever went near Dr Alban Thomas again. Such (uncomfortable) cases remind us of the situation facing patients in the early modern period. For some the decision to see a doctor must have been a balancing act between bearing their illness or facing treatment.

(This post originally appeared on Alun Withey’s blog Thank you to Alun for cross-posting his Sloane story here!)

An early eighteenth-century ghost

By Felicity Roberts

One of the most entertaining set of letters in Sir Hans Sloane’s correspondence was written by William Derham (1657-1735), the rector at Upminster in Essex and an enthusiastic member of the Royal Society.  Derham’s letters to him are so lively that you get a good impression of their shared business and scientific interests–including, it seems, ghosts.

Sloane and Derham began to correspond around 1698 and continued until shortly before Derham’s death in 1735.  Since Derham’s clerical duties frequently prevented him from attending Royal Society meetings, Derham sent his natural history observations to Sloane to be read at Society meetings (Lisa Smith has discussed Derham’s activities in not one but two previous posts). This is especially true for the period during which Sloane was Secretary of the Society, between 1693 and 1713.  Derham wrote to Sloane with observations of the weather; details of his experiments on the speed of sound; and astronomical observations.

Perhaps the living of Upminster did not pay well, or perhaps Derham was just happy to do his friend a favour, but in 1705 it appears that alongside his clerical duties Derham also agreed to be an agent for Sloane in the purchase and management of a farm in a village Derham calls “Orset” (present-day Orsett, south east of Upminster).

The details of the property management letters are fascinating, not only because it shows the social and business connections forged between members of the Royal Society, but also because it suggests how Sloane increased his estate by investing in land.  Exactly how Sloane financed his museum is still not known–his medical practice, sugar plantation, hot chocolate recipe, eye remedy, and property buying must all have contributed.

But my favourite Derham letter is that of 13 December 1708. Derham wrote excitedly to Sloane with an “odd story” concerning Sloane’s farm tenants who:

[R]eceive disturbances constantly every night by great rumbling in the chambers, dashing the Doors open, & shutting them wth [damaged], that the woman’s Spinning-wheel (standing by her [bed]-side in the room they ly) is whirled about as if they spun, yt the warming-pan hanging by her bed-side is rattled & rung, that a woman who lay in one of the Chambres lately had the clothes pulled off her bed perpetually, & putting out her hand to pull them on, she felt a cold hand take her by her hand.

Richard Newton and John Hassell after George Woodward, The Haunted Cellar. Credit: The British Museum.

Derham’s story, which he has had second-hand from a neighbour, is rather breathlessly related.  And indeed, the details of the spinning-wheel operating of its own accord, and of the bed clothes being pulled off by a cold hand during the night, are pretty spooky.  But it seems that Derham’s curiosity has been aroused rather than his fear.  He encouraged Sloane:

 “You being a curious man, I wish you would come, & we would go, & ly there a night.”

True to their Royal Society philosophy, Derham proposes that they spend the night in the farm so that they might observe the events and collect evidence.  It is a delightful suggestion from Derham, but we do not know whether Sloane ever took him up on his offer!

Lost Letters in the Eighteenth Century

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Sending a letter around the turn of the eighteenth century was an uncertain business. Although the Penny Post (1680) had enabled the daily delivery of letters within ten miles of London, letters were generally sent with travellers or servants or, perhaps, by diplomatic channels, over longer distances. As Alice Marples recently hinted, warfare, lost ships, highwaymen, pirates and unreliable bearers were potential barriers to delivery. Hans Sloane’s correspondents, not surprisingly, had much to say on the matter of postal problems–including, sometimes, the letter-writer himself!

The path of sending letters was sometimes complicated. William Fraser forwarded Sloane a letter from Dr Martini in Riga. Fraser had left Martini’s letter behind in Hamburg by accident and had only just received it once more. Any replies were to be directed to Fraser at Robin’s Coffeehouse, which he would then forward to Martini in Riga. Fraser’s letter was undated, so there is no telling how long it took for Martini’s letter dated 20 December 1717 to reach Sloane. Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich had a detailed back-up plan that he needed when he did not hear from Sloane, despite sending several letters, in 1716. He wrote to John Woodward in England who then forwarded Sloane a copy of the original letter.

This was a wise decision when letters and packages might be lost. Letters sent between countries were especially at risk.  Denis Papin, for example, only learned in 1709 that Sloane had sent a letter to him in France when a mutual acquaintance told him. Johann Philipp Breyne, writing from Amsterdam, was disappointed in 1702 when he discovered that Sloane had never received his letter from Rome, which had included (tantalizingly) a “curious account”. But even letters sent within England might go astray. In April 1702, Abraham de la Pryme, writing from Thorne, was unsure whether or not Sloane had received his last month’s letter about a man bitten by a rabid dog. To make matters worse, the Philosophical Transactions that Sloane had sent him had also not arrived!

Despite the problems, people seem to have trusted the post enough to send valuable items through it. William Sherard reported in 1701 that several prints had arrived from Paris and were at the post office awaiting payment of customs fees. Sherard also promised that his brother, once returned from Paris, would send Sloane some books. John Ray, in 1697, let Sloane know that he had finally received Sloane’s package of flower specimens.

Of course, sometimes lost letters were the ones ignored buried under Sloane’s piles of correspondence. In May 1704, Nehemiah Grew wrote to Sloane about one of Ralph Thoresby’s letters (subject unspecified). Sloane had apparently not yet responded to or returned the letter, despite his promises for over half a year. This, Grew complained, put him in a difficult position. He demanded that Sloane return Thoresby’s letter immediately. Sloane presumably returned the letter and it seems likely that the letter was eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions (1704) as the (delightfully titled) “An Extract of a Letter from Mr Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S. to Nehemiah Grew, Fellow of the College of Physicians and R.S. concerning a Ball voided by Stool”.

Sloane’s lack of a reply to Grew and Thoresby does, however, make me wonder how many of these ‘concerns’ about lost letters were actually Sloane’s correspondents issuing polite reminders to reply— a strategy that is as useful  in the age of electronic communication as it was in the eighteenth century…

October 9 is World Post Day: the celebration of the Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874, which allowed for the development of a reliable international postal service.

For more on early modern letters and post, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (2012).

A Visit to Seventeenth-Century Jamaica

One of my favourite letters in Hans Sloane’s correspondence is one written by twenty-eight year old Sloane to Sir Edward Herbert on the 17th of April, 1688 (British Library, Sloane MS 4068, ff. 7-9). It’s a lively account of Sloane’s experiences of the new world, including earthquakes and pineapples!

A parodic cosmological diagram showing opposing aspects of the life of colonialists in Jamaica - langorous noons and the hells of yellow fever. Coloured aquatint by A.J., 1800. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A parodic cosmological diagram showing opposing aspects of the life of colonialists in Jamaica – langorous noons and the hells of yellow fever. Coloured aquatint by A.J., 1800. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane had arrived in Jamaica in December 1687, after a three month journey, to be the personal physician of the Duke of Albemarle, Governor of Jamaica. Although Sloane suffered from sea sickness during the journey, followed by a fever on arrival, he had settled into his new surroundings by April. His ailments had been but a trifle—“a little seasoning (as I call it)”—and he had since enjoyed perfect health.[1] The climate, Sloane noted, was also more hospitable than people in England assumed. Mornings and evenings might be hot, but the rest of the day was temperate; “I’m sure”, he wrote, “I have felt greater heat in some parts of France then ever I did here”. 

On the subject of local diet, Sloane wrote that the fruits were not as good as European ones. Pineapples, he thought, were “far inferior” to pippins, but the watermelons were “very good”. The local water was particularly excellent and he insisted that “it has preserved my life I’m sure”. Perhaps it had, since he was in good health—unlike the settlers he treated, such as the Duke of Albemarle and his crony, the Admiral Henry Morgan, whose dissolute behaviour was well-known. Many settlers, Sloane suggested, had “a false principle concerning the climate” and ended up killing themselves “by adding fewell to the fire & drinking strong intoxicating liquor”. Sloane’s letter hints at an underlying belief that whereas intemperate men would find a tropical climate difficult, a temperate man would find it temperate.[2]

Since February, Sloane had come to “dread” the local earthquakes. He described the start of a local quake:  “I finding the house to dance & cabinetts to reel I look’d out at window to see whither people remov’d  house or no”. When he noticed the birds “in as great a concern as my selfe” and another shake occurred, he realised what was happening. He promptly “betook [himself] to [his] heels to gett clear of the house”.  Before he even reached the stairs, the earthquake was over.

Sloane’s later report in the Philosophical Transactions (issue 209, 1694) is less humorous, but provides details about both the earthquake and his life in Jamaica. He was, for example, specific about the timing. Three small shocks occurred at eight in the morning, lasting only a minute. The report also included accounts from across the island. Ships in the harbour felt it, but one man on horseback didn’t even notice. A gentleman on his plantation “saw the ground rise like the Sea in a Wave” as it headed northward. Minor though it was, the earthquake still caused damage. Many houses were “crack’d”, “ruin’d” or lost tiles.

In the Phil. Trans., Sloane also revealed tidbits about his residence in Spanish Town and other Jamaican buildings. Sloane lived in a “high Brick House”. It must have been a good size, as he had to pass through two rooms to get to the staircase to go down. There was apparently a third (or fourth?) floor since “a pair of stairs higher” suffered the most damage from the tremors, with most items on the shelves falling down.

King's Square, St. Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), c. 1820-1824. Most of these were late eighteenth-century buildings, although as early as 1672, it was a good sized area with 2000 households. Original: Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica Scan: Internet Archive

King’s Square, St. Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), c. 1820-1824. In 1672, it was a good sized area with 2000 households. The buildings in this picture date to the late eighteenth century.
From Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica. Source: The Internet Archive.

The island’s Spanish architecture, in contrast, was very practical: low houses consisting only of ground-rooms, with supporting posts buried deep in the ground. This, Sloane explained, was “on purpose to avoid the Danger which attended other manner of building from Earthquakes”. He noted, for example, that “Inhabitants of Jamaica expect an earthquake every year” and that some believed “they follow their Rains”. Given the frequency of earthquakes in the region and the impracticality of Sloane’s residence, it was a good thing for him that this was a minor one.

While in Jamaica, Sloane did more than collect flora and fauna specimens and treat his patients. He keenly observed the world around him, whether it was the taste of fruit and water or the style of local buildings. Sloane might harshly judge the habits of the settlers, but his 1688 letter reveals an otherwise affable and curious young man who was enjoying his stay in Jamaica, even if he didn’t care for pineapple.

Or earthquakes.

[1] This referred to the process by which Europeans believed they would acclimatize to non-European climates, diseases, foods and waters.

[2] This fits with Wendy Churchill’s argument that Sloane attributed diseases to behaviour rather than to different climates or group complexions: “Bodily Differences? : Gender, Race, and Class in Hans Sloane’s Jamaican Medical Practice, 1687-1688”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60, 4 (2005): 391-444.

Shell Game: Martin Lister and the Conchological Collections of Sir Hans Sloane

By Anna Marie Roos

For my forthcoming book with Bodleian Library Press (The Lister Sisters: Women and the Art of Scientific Illustration), I have been researching the work of Martin Lister (1639-1712), a royal physician, vice president of the Royal Society, the first scientific conchologist and arachnologist, and a colleague and correspondent of Hans Sloane. Lister and his daughters Susanna and Anna produced the Historiae Conchyliorum  (1685-92), the first comprehensive study of conchology.  The work consisted of over 1000 copperplates portraying shells and molluscs that Lister collected from around the world, as well as an appendix of molluscan dissections and comparative anatomy.

We can see here that Lister's daughters Susanna and Anna were credited with doing the illustrations: "Susanna et Anna Lister pinx[erunt]".

We can see here that Lister’s daughters Susanna and Anna were credited with doing the illustrations: “Susanna et Anna Lister Figuras pin[xerunt]”.

Some of the shells that Lister’s daughters illustrated still exist in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London, as part of the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane.  When Sloane went to Jamaica in 1687, Lister asked him to bring back specimens not only of shells but of what he termed ‘naked snails’ or slugs.   Lister also borrowed specimens from the virtuoso and collector William Courten or Charleton (1642–1702), dedicating his Historiae to him.  Courten had a public museum of curiosities in a suite of ten rooms in the Temple, London, including artwork, specimens of flora and fauna, and archaeological objects.  In turn, Sloane bought the collection entire, including Courten’s shells that the Listers illustrated in their book.

When he catalogued the Sloane Shell collection, Guy Wilkins first noticed the existence of the original specimens in the NHM collections, and I wished to investigate the provenance of the shells a bit further with the help of the delightful Kathie Way, the senior curator of mollusca.  I also was curious about the techniques that Susanna and Lister used to portray the specimens. There were no set rules for scientific illustration in the seventeenth century, and it was an era before the development of binomial nomenclature to classify species taxonomically. Lister and his daughters were therefore creating standards for classification and identification of species.

I first noticed that when the Listers had an actual specimen to illustrate, they portrayed the shells in a one-to-one scale for ready identification.  In the case of a shell from the genus patella, or a true limpet, the shell can be laid flatly on the page, and it seems that his daughters traced around its periphery to portray its margins accurately in the final engraving.  It is possible to place the shell down on the drawing and get a perfect match.

Patella granulatis, Sloane 1013, Natural History Museum, London next to its portrayal by Anna Lister in the Historiae Conchyliorum.  Courtesy, NHM, London

Patella granulatis, Sloane 1013, Natural History Museum, London next to its portrayal by Anna Lister in the Historiae Conchyliorum, Table 536. Photo by Anna Marie Roos, © The Natural History Museum, London.


Photo by Anna Marie Roos, © The Natural History Museum, London.


Ostrea squamosa, Sloane Collection, NHM London and its portrayal in the Historiae Conchyliorum

Ostrea squamosa, Sloane Collection, NHM London and its portrayal in the Historiae Conchyliorum, Table 184. Photo by Anna Marie Roos, © The Natural History Museum, London.

We also see the same technique utilized in the portrayal of this scallop shell, Ostrea squamosa, which is the lectotype, a biological specimen selected to serve as a definitive “type” example of a species.  Anna Lister portrayed the markings on the surface of the shell absolutely accurately in her copperplate engraving.

There is effective use and adaptation of perspective in the illustrations by the Lister Sisters.  Melo aetheopica has a distinctive umbilicus, the origin from which the whorls of the shell grew.  However, looking down upon the shell hides this feature that is of great use in classification.  As a result, Susanna Lister traced its outline to obtain the general shape and then tilted it upwards to reveal the umbilicus. Her use of perspective construction was thus was not “strictly correct” but opportunistic, entirely in keeping with what Martin Kemp has demonstrated in his work concerning the historical uses of perspective construction.  Her artistic judgment went beyond copying the shell, to featuring it as a taxonomic specimen of use in identification.

Melo aetheopica, Sloane Collection, Natural History Collection net to its portrayal by Susanna Lister. Note she altered the perspective to see the distinguishing characteristic of the umbilicus.

Melo aetheopica, Sloane 2374, Natural History Collection next to its portrayal by Susanna Lister in the Historiae, Table 801. Note she altered the perspective so it is possible to see the distinguishing characteristic of the umbilicus. Photo by Anna Marie Roos, © The Natural History Museum, London.


Photo by Anna Marie Roos, © The Natural History Museum, London.

Currently, we are tracing the provenance of Sloane’s shell collection using inventories, correspondence, and information from the drawings themselves.  Specimen exchange and collection involved far-reaching networks: traders, apothecaries, physicians, naturalists, and collectors all populated a vast intellectual geography to create the conchological collections of Sloane and the British Museum.


Martin Kemp, The Science of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

Martin Lister, Historiae Conchyliorum (London: by the author, 1685-92).

Anna Marie Roos, ‘The Art of Science: A ‘Rediscovery of the Lister Copperplates’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 66 (1) (2012), pp. 19-40.

Anna Marie Roos, ‘A discovery of Martin Lister ephemera: the construction of early modern scientific texts‘, The Bodleian Library Record, 26, 1 (April 2013), pp. 123-135.

Anna Marie Roos, Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Kathie Way, ‘Invertebrate Collections’, In: Arthur MacGregor, (ed.) Sir Hans Sloane, Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum (London: British Museum Publishing, 1994). pp. 93-110.

Guy Wilkins, ‘A Catalogue and Historical Account of the Sloane Shell Collection’, Bulletin of The British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, 1, 1, (London: 1953), pp.  3-50.

Missed Opportunities in Early Modern Exploration?

A map of "Terra Australis" by Jan Janssonius (1657). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Joop Rotte.

A map of “Terra Australis” by Jan Janssonius (1657). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Joop Rotte.

By Matthew De Cloedt

In early December 1721 James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos, requested a meeting with Sir Hans Sloane. Brydges, a shareholder in chartered companies operating in New York, Mississippi, and Nova Scotia, wished to gain Sloane’s scientific expertise and advise an expedition of the Royal African Company headed by a “good Botanist” named Mr Hay. Brydges sent Francis Lynn, the company secretary, to Sloane’s residence three days later to answer his questions regarding the venture and to inform him of “the Nature of Drugs, plants, and spices” they were expecting to gather on the expedition.

Though the Royal African Company had lost its trading monopoly after the Glorious Revolution it continued to receive support from prominent individuals. Men like Brydges bet on its success, for the potential financial losses were negligible compared to the possible returns should a profitable, new commodity be discovered. Sloane was a natural choice for Brydges. He was wealthy thanks to his Jamaican interests, well connected to global trade networks, aware of the riches to be gained from botanical commerce, and friendly with the family of Brydges’s wife Cassandra Willughby. Sloane obliged Brydges’ request and directed company officials in Whydah to collect particular plant specimens. [1]

Sloane regularly received invitations to lend his scientific expertise or invest in business ventures. When he supported a person or company he connected them to a network that included the royal family and contacts around the world. Rejected proposals ended up in his large collection of manuscripts. Some of the more interesting schemes point to what might have been had Sloane seriously backed their proponents.

In the spring of 1716, shortly after he was created baronet, Sloane received a letter from Woodes Rogers asking for all the information he had on Madagascar. The Royal African Company had excluded individual traders from the West African coast, driving them to East African trade centres. English attempts had been made throughout the seventeenth century to establish meaningful trade in Madagascar, which was dominated by the Portuguese and Dutch, but they had little success. Rogers was determined to break into this market.

Rogers had already been a Colonial Governor and privateer in the Bahamas, but wanted to take on a more ambitious project in starting his own colony on Madagascar. There is no evidence that Sloane even replied, but his large library, reputation as a traveler and natural historian, and place within the scientific community attracted Rogers. It would not have been the first time Sloane helped a pirate.

John Welbe wrote several months after Rogers to request Sloane’s assistance. Welbe was in prison for a debt he failed to repay and promised to undertake a voyage to “Terra Australis Incognita” if Sloane helped him. Welbe had long been seeking a patron to support his voyage and forwarded a petition he had written to the Crown of Denmark as evidence. That Sloane was apparently Welbe’s second choice after the Danes indicates how great a patron he was considered to be, or how desperate Welbe was to be freed from bondage.

The unknown territory had been spotted before, but no serious attempt at settling there had been made. With Sloane’s help, Welbe might have gained the support of others with financial and/or natural historical interests in what became Australia, but nothing came of the plan. There is no evidence Sloane bailed Welbe out of prison or even replied to his letter, but in any case he did not sponsor any voyage to the “Terra Australis Incognita”. It would take another prominent Royal Society member, Joseph Banks, to really put Australia on the map.

With his busy medical practice and duties to the government, Royal Society, and Royal College of Physicians, Sloane was too busy to deal with all of the schemes proposed to him. But the map of the world by 1720 might have looked different if Sloane had chosen to throw the weight of the Royal Society and his social network behind Welbe or Rogers.

Counterfactuals aside, Sloane was an ideal patron for international scientific and commercial expeditions, for he had first hand experience. When he traveled to Jamaica in 1687 he was, like Mr Hay, a “good Botanist” trying to make a name for himself using science, commerce, and foreign travel as the foundation for a successful career. Understanding why Sloane ignored Welbe and Rogers might be simple. The two did acknowledge Sloane’s scientific expertise, but focused on securing his financial support. Sloane was not afraid of making money, but he was equally as interested in the opportunity to contribute to science through exploration and commerce. Appealing to this desire might have been the best approach.

[1] Larry Stewart, “The Edge of Utility: Slaves and Smallpox in the Early Eighteenth Century”, Medical History 29 (1985), 60-61.

A Death by Unicorn Horn in 1730

On the 28th of August 1730, Joseph Hastings died after receiving “several mortal Bruises with an Unicorn’s Horn”, wielded by John Williams of St. Andrew’s Holborn eleven days earlier. The assault occurred on a Holborn skittle-ground, witnessed by several local men.

Robert Linsey deposed that Joseph Hastings arrived at the skittle-ground “with the Horn in his Hand, and some old Clothes”. According to the defendent, he had been on his way for a pint of beer when he met a friend who encouraged him to drink a pint of gin instead (to help with his ague). While passing through the skittle ground, Williams picked up the horn and “ask’d the Deceas’d, what he would have for it?” When Hastings replied “it was worth more Money than he had in his Pocket”, Williams contemptuously offered three pence.

    Narwhal tusk. These tusks could grow to several metres in length and were often traded as unicorn horns. Powdered unicorn horns had medicinal uses. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Narwhal tusk. These tusks could grow to several metres in length and were often traded as unicorn horns. Powdered unicorn horns had medicinal uses. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Hastings unsurprisingly refused, demanding that Williams return the horn. Witnesses testified that Hastings bragged that he had “been bid more Money for that Horn, than any Man at the Ground had in his Pocket”—by no-one other than Sir Hans Sloane himself. Williams called Hastings “a fancy Son of a B – h, and if he spoke two Words more he would knock him down with it”.

At this point, things are a little unclear. According to the defendant, Hastings swore at him “and lifted up his Hand with the Bowl in order to throw it at him”. Williams claimed that he merely pushed Hastings off in self defence and that it was an accident that Hastings fell back onto the stump.

But some witnesses saw Williams as the aggressor. John Drew saw Williams strike Hastings in the stomach with the horn, then push “him on on the Jaw with the end of it”. After Hastings fell onto a stump, Williams again hit him with the horn until someone took it away. Williams then kicked Hastings “upon his Breast, Belly, and Members”. Hastings was unconscious for at least two minutes.

Charles Wentworth, added “That he had never seen so vile and barbarous a Thing done in his Life”. The other men at the skittle ground held Williams back to keep him from following Hastings, who “went away in a very bloody Condition”. Wentworth visited Hastings several times after the attack: his “Head had been broke, and his Head and Face bruis’d in five places” and his genitals “look’d like a piece of Neck-Beef”.

Much of testimony considered whether or not Williams could be responsible for Hastings’ later death. Apothecary Richard Buckley attended the patient on 27 August, noting that the scrotum was discoloured. He thought the cause of death was probably an apoplexy. The autopsy after Hastings died was inconclusive. Although surgeon Mr Smith believed that the injuries were the cause of death, both Noah Sherwood and Henry Hildip did not think that the injuries were severe enough. The deceased had a rupture in his scrotum, but minor bruises and no skull fracture. The real clincher, perhaps, was that several people saw Hastings walking around after his injuries.

For those close to Hastings, Williams’ guilt was obvious. Mrs Hastings provided the sad testimony that her husband had left home in perfect health and returned with a broken head, “the Mark of a Foot on his Face, and a Bruise the side of his Neck and Throat”. Her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Waller, and brother-in-law spoke about Hastings’ continual pain and insistence that, if he died, it was because of Williams’ attack.

The jury acquitted Williams.

In many ways, this is an ordinary tale of a brutal assault with terrible consequences. The case itself, though, gives us a tantalizing glimpse into daily life in Holborn: neighbours who witnessed the attack or helped to nurse the patient, the importance of the skittle-ground in local social life, the use of any weapon that came to hand, the prickliness of each man’s sense of honour, the use of gin as a remedy for ague…

But it is the unicorn horn and reference to Sloane that captures my attention. The fact that Hastings possessed a unicorn horn is intriguing: from where did he get it and for what price? It was clearly valuable to him—and of interest to others, such as Williams. Had he taken the horn out that day with the intention of showing it off to friends, or (perhaps for a small price) to people down at the local tavern? Sloane’s fame, moreover, even extended to skittle-ground skuffles. His name, it appears, was readily identifiable in popular culture with the trade in curiosities, possibly enhancing the value of an asociated object.

A fascination with curiosities was not only for the educated, but was widespread in eighteenth-century society. The unicorn horn tale is just the tip: people eagerly paid to see wild men or bearded ladies and other wonders. But the story also reveals that the wealthy were not the only ones who might have a prized collection of curiosities; those lower down the social scale could, too—even if it was just a single, and singular, unicorn horn.

You can read the records from the trial at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online.

Timing is Everything

William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Materialscientist.

By Matthew De Cloedt

Hans Sloane received many gifts from myriad places and numerous people. The two books that Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of Lincoln, sent on 24 July 1722 were different. The titles might not have been noteworthy, or even mentioned in his letter, but the thanks they represented were deeply personal. Edmund’s uncle, Dr Thomas Gibson, had recently passed away and Sloane had been the attending physician during his final days. The care and treatment made an impression on the family and they greatly appreciated his service.

But before Sloane had a chance to read Edmund’s thank you letter, he had three requests for recommendation letters to respond to: all wanting to replace Dr Thomas Gibson who had been the physician to William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan.

As both a court physician and the President of the Royal College of Physicians, Sloane ordinarily attracted a great number of such recommendation requests. In this case, however, Sloane was an even better connection than unusual; his daughter Elizabeth had married the Earl’s younger brother Charles in 1717. The post was prestigious, for Earl Cadogan had served with distinction during the War of the Spanish Succession under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. This was the opportunity of a lifetime and the competitors wasted no time in petitioning Sloane for support.

The applicants for the position were strong and each was aware of the need to secure Sloane’s assistance first. Philip Rose urgently wrote: “Dr Gibson being dead… I thought it improper to loose time”. Frank and to the point, Rose assured Sloane that he was worthy of the post and would forever remember whose patronage secured the job for him. Unfortunately, he had a black mark on his record–an outstanding debt with the Royal College of Physicians. It was not until 1728 that the debt was settled and this no doubt hindered his chances of preferment.

John Woodward was a noted physician, natural historian, antiquary, and active member of the Royal Society and Royal College of Physicians. He hoped to see Sloane at a dinner in Greenwich with apothecaries, where they might discuss the job, among other things. Woodward’s chances might have been hampered by the fact that he and Sloane had a spat over a decade before. During an argument over the nature of plant physiology and respiration Woodward insulted Sloane, refused to apologize, and then attempted to remove Sloane from his post at the Royal Society. This bad blood between the two led to Woodward’s absence from actively engaging in the Royal Society business. It, perhaps, would have taken a considerable amount of charm and interesting table talk to overshadow their previous conflict. (That said, Woodward–himself a collector–did write Sloane several other letters about their mutual interests after the dispute of 1710!)

Sir Richard Manningham, the celebrated man mid-wife, claimed to be embarrassed to ask Sloane for his support because of the “Considerable salary” attached to the post. He asked Sloane to “forgive this rash weakness and folly” on his part. Manningham was well qualified. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1719, then was knighted in February 1722. There were no significant blemishes on his record to this point in his career, save his self-confessed boldness in contacting Sloane in the hopes of his support.

Each of the hopefuls vying to replace the late Dr Thomas Gibson recognized the importance of reaching Sloane first. The competitiveness of the medical profession required well-connected contacts like Sloane to gain the positions with the most prestige and largest remuneration. It is not clear whether or not any one of them got the job, but a cursory vetting of the candidates nearly three hundred years later suggests some had more faults than others. As Sloane was the late Dr Gibson’s physician, it might have helped their chances to lament the fact he had passed away instead of immediately requesting Sloane’s backing.

Letters Sealed With a Kiss in the Republic of Letters

Today is International Kissing Day. In June, on National Kissing Day (UK), I spread some misery instead of joy with a sad tale of a kiss. But kisses weren’t always so terrible. A quick search of the database reveals that men in the Republic of Letters were no strangers to sealing their letters with a kiss. Well… at least referring to kisses in their letters! Such letters highlight that eighteenth-century kissing was as much about gratitude and submission as friendship for then men of the Royal Society.

A nobleman kissing a lady's hand, Pietro Longhi (1746). Historical images of hand-kissing between men are difficult to find!   Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, photograph taken by user Ammonius.

Historical images of hand-kissing between men are difficult to find! This picture is a nobleman kissing a lady’s hand by Pietro Longhi, 1746. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Ammonius.

Richard Waller in 1696 wrote to apologise that he was proving a poor Royal Society secretary because he could so rarely come into London for the meetings. He did, nonetheless, promise that when he next saw Sloane, he “will not fail to kiss [Sloane’s] hand”. The letter expresses gratitude to Sloane who has been taking on the bulk of the secretarial work. In some ways, this seems equivalent to the modern “I could just kiss you”. But hand-kissing had a more significant meaning  in early modern Europe than simple affection and gratitude: to kiss someone’s hand was a form of submission. Waller’s gratitude was great indeed!

The reference to kissing in the letter of George Bennis suggests that Sloane was becoming an important patron relatively early in his career. Bennis—who otherwise left little mark on the Republic of Letters or Royal Society—wrote in 1698 that he had waited on Sloane several times, but had not been able to speak with him. As Bennis now needed to return to Ireland, he instead left Sloane some botanical samples along with the letter. In particular, Bennis noted his regret at being unable to kiss Sloane’s hand. Bennis’ kiss was one of deference to a potential patron, and another Irish man who had managed to make it big in Britain.

But sometimes a kiss is a mark of true friendship. A letter from well-known botanist William Sherard in 1699 referred to kissing within the context of friendship. The two men had several close mutual acquaintances (John Ray and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, for example) and their correspondence over time shows a mutual interest in each other’s projects and lives. In this letter, he mentioned his excitement at returning home from Paris, along with various details about book buying and auctions. In addition to promising Sloane that he would make some purchases for him, Sherard exlaimed that he couldn’t wait to kiss Sloane’s hand very soon.

So far I have only found a handful of references to kisses in the Sloane correspondence, either in the database or in the manuscripts. This might be a function of data selection; a seemingly casual reference to kissing might easily be overlooked as a pro forma statement that didn’t need to be noted. That said, an early eighteenth-century guide to letter-writing, The Secretary’s Guide (1705), does not provide any samples between men that mention hand-kissing.The infrequency of kissing references suggests that any ones mentioned in Sloane’s letters are meaningful.

One thing is clear: we need to pay attention to these tiny details. A kiss was never just a kiss in the Republic of Letters .

Sloane: Part of the Family

By Alice Marples

When thinking about famous figures in the history of science, it can sometimes be easy to forget that they were not working in isolation. A lot of recent research has focused on exploring the domestic contexts of scientific production, and paints a picture of kitchen table-top experiments and hoards of curious visitors mucking up the carpet. Men of science were the heads of households, supported (and, likely, just about tolerated) by their families and servants, who were often called in to help.

Yet, when I first began reading through Sloane’s correspondence, I was still surprised by the extent to which wives and children featured in the letters. The broad geographical shape and intellectual form of the international Republic of Letters, linking scholars who had often never met, necessitated a certain contractual form of conduct in epistolary exchanges: elevated, polite and very, very formal. Though the letters in Sloane’s collection are polite, the business discussed within them flows easily from formal to familial, with the knowledge exchanged alternating between the scientific and the social.

John Smybert, The Bermuda Group (1728-1739), Yale University Art Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The first letter from John Ray (1627-1705) – a naturalist-parson and patron of Sloane’s, easily the single person with whom he corresponded the most – concludes his discussion of the state of the scientific community with the request that Sloane should come visit Ray in Black Notley, as he and his wife would love to see him. There is a great deal of affection communicated through these letters, giving the impression that Sloane was very much part of the furniture within the Ray household.

Sloane’s increasingly long absences as he became busier and more successful as a physician and collector are mourned by Ray, his wife, and their daughters. After a relatively big gap in their communication in which Sloane is almost entirely taken up with administering to the rather-troublesome Lady Albermarle and her frequent health issues, we have this from Ray:

Monday last I received your kind letter attended with a rich Present of sugar to my Wife: They were both very gratefull & acceptable…. You have so highly pleased & obliged my Wife, that she is much in commendation of your generosity, & returns you her humble service & hearty thanks; wishing that you were here to partake of some of the effects of your kindnesse.

This present of sugar to the Ray family to make up for his absence was one which Sloane returned to again and again:

My little family are, I thank God, at present all in health…. We often tast of your kindnesse, & as often remember you, & talk of you. My wife salutes you with the tender of her most humble service. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 256)

Certainly lots of letters were written by current or future members of the Royal Society on account of the health of their family, such as Sir Godfrey Copley’s wife or William Sherard’s mother. Similarly, Sloane’s wife is present in many of the letters, with doctors, botanists and lords courteously asking after her whenever she is ill.

But networks built by demonstrable medical expertise and social power did not exist within a void. They were supplemented by personal connections maintained through everyday exchanges among friends and associates, and their families, all of whom were present within the learned community. For example, Sir Godfrey Copley felt compelled to beg on behalf of his wife that Sloane send her the reciept of Making Bacon like that of Westphalia. (Sloane MS 4036, f.188)

Wives swapped housemaids, passed on recipes and recommendations, and actively sought positions for friends and servants through the epistolary exchanges. Sons began working for individuals and companies after being recommended to them by those who knew their parents. Daughters were introduced to improving elder ladies, and written about fondly in letters between fathers. All these interactions appear in the letters as part of the scientific and scholarly information. These letters offer rewarding traces of domestic life, friendship, the role of women in patronage, and the familial world of natural history.

Sloane existed at the centre of a world-wide network of letter-writers, yet it is important to remember that often Sloane’s correspondence was not quite the same sort of exchange as that of the virtuous Republic of Letters. Time and again, there is evidence within the letters of the personal, informal and integrated worlds of families and friends behind this polite language and professions of worthy enterprise.

On this note, I leave you with the warm but exasperated postscript written along the edges of Sir Arthur Rawdon’s letter to Sloane, dated 30th March 1692:

My wife has made me open my letter agen to tell you that she is much troubled that you should write word that you were afraid the cause of my silence was that you had disobliged either her mother or her, she hopes you have a better opinion of them. (Sloane MS 4036, f.115)

Sloane was sometimes so deeply involved with the extended families and friends of his correspondents, that even his patron’s mother-in-law (assisted by his wife) was able to tease him.