Category: Networks

Hans Sloane’s New York Connections

I was just in New York at a rather fun Cookbook Conference, speaking on medicinal remedies in manuscript recipe books. As I was preparing for my first trip to New York, I idly searched the Sloane database, wondering whether Sloane had any New York connections. I found two letters that refer to New York.

Central Park, New York, February 2013. Photo Credit and Copyright: Mark Gudgeon. Used with permission.

The first is from Patrick Gordon, a naval chaplain, who wrote to Sloane in late April 1702. Gordon apologised for missing the last Royal Society meeting and recent Philosophical Transactions. He asked if there were any commands from the Royal Society for his upcoming residence in New York. Gordon noted that he would be residing in New York for several years. The Royal Society (and Sloane) relied on the reports of men deemed reliable (such as Gordon) for information about medical and scientific matters from across the world.

At present, no subsequent letters from Gordon are in the database, but letters from other men in North America suggest how this relationship might have functioned. Col. William Byrd, for example, wrote a few letters from North America between 1706 and 1710. He clearly referred to Royal Society directives in the information he gathered. Byrd even sent samples, such as roots to cure snakebites.

Sometimes requests for assistance came to Sloane from the other side of the world. On 30 October 1716, William Vesey of New York wrote to Sloane to thank him for medical advice.

The spires of the third Trinity Church (c. 1846) against the backdrop of 1 World Trade Center. Credit and copyright: Lisa Smith.

Vesey had been receiving Sloane’s advice for smallpox and was now recovering from it. Vesey, who was one of the early rectors of Trinity Church in Manhattan, had visited England in 1714-15.(1) As payment, Vesey enclosed five guineas. This was the equivalent of about £444 in 2005 and would have bought one cow in 1720.(2)

Sloane’s reputation as a physician was indeed international! That said, most of his patients from outside Britain and Ireland came from Jamaica, France and the Netherlands. Many were people who had travelled abroad (such as Isabella Pierrepont, the Duchess of Kingston) or, like Vesey, had heard of Sloane while in London (such as the Swedish ambassador, Count Carl Gyllenborg).

Although Sloane’s New York connections are not in themselves particularly impressive, they were a small part of a much wider global network of travellers and shared ideas.

(1) This I discovered on an amble about Lower Manhattan after writing this post. Vesey has a street named after him and is mentioned on the sign outside Trinity Church. See also the Wikipedia entry for William Vesey.

(2) This was calculated using the National Archives historical currency converter

Note: this entry was updated on February 13, 2012 with the information about Vesey’s occupation and travels.


Contracts and Early Modern Scholarly Networks

By Ann-Marie Hansen

In the face of such an extensive collection of correspondence as Sir Hans Sloane’s, one might well ask how a person could establish such a network of contacts in the days before electronic social-media. Each relationship tells its own story, of course, but Sloane communicated with many scholars within what was known as the Republic of Letters. This intellectual community had a set of rules governing the proper way of establishing a written exchange. (For recent commentary on the need for rules in online academic sociability today, see here, here and here!)

One such practice was the epistolary contract, which allows us to understand how such relationships were established. This was a formal agreement between correspondents that determined their respective responsibilities and subsequently formed the basis for all further communication. Such contracts were especially necessary in cases where the correspondents never met and so couldn’t discuss the details in person; as a result we find evidence of several such contracts in Sloane’s correspondence with French scholars.

Jean Paul Bignon. Engraving by C. Duflos after H. Rigaud, 1708. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In the crucial first letters of an exchange a relationship would be offered and, if accepted, the specific terms would be negotiated such that the ensuing “commerce de lettres” would suit both parties. The language used reveals a contractual nature of the proposed exchange, for example referring to conditions and obligation. There is, however, also a hint of the relationship’s commercial nature. The goods and services to be provided by one or both sides were discussed, as well as the fair compensation for these favours. This was ordinarily payment in kind, such as scientific news from France being traded for scientific news from England. This was the case in the exchange proposed by the Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, who wrote:


My wishes would be fulfilled if […] it would please you to enter into some sort of exchange with me, and from time to time send me news of what is happening in the learned world. […] To make an advance on the dealings that I am proposing, the principal gain from which will be mine, I am sending you literary news which particular reasons keep us from printing in our journals. (Sloane MS 4041, f. 324)

Epistolary contracts sometimes stipulated how often each person had to write, and if either party did not meet these obligations they could expect to be reprimanded for their silence. Sloane himself was scolded in November 1695 for neglecting his recently established correspondence with the journalist Henri Basnage de Beauval. Having heard of Sloane’s recent nuptials with Elizabeth Langley (in May 1695), Basnage admitted that taking a wealthy wife was sufficient reason for having lately been overly occupied, but insisted that Sloane’s new situation did not free him from his prior commitments.

But please, you are not henceforth excused from the obligation to which you committed yourself. It is time that I remind you that you offered me an epistolary exchange, and that is a commitment which I do not accept to have been annulled by the other duties that you have recently taken upon yourself. Be so good then as to fulfill what you promised me, and recognize that it is well that I should ask you to do so. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 219)

Sloane must have replied promptly enough after that, as the two men exchanged news for some years to come. Moreover, given how vast a network of contacts continued to communicate with Sloane, this temporary failing on his part seems to have been a rather rare occurrence. He did only marry the one time after all.

Original French Quotations

(1) Je serois au comble de mes souhaits si […] vous voudrés bien entrer dans quelque sorte de commerce avec moi; et me mander de temps en temps ce qu’il y aura de nouveau par rapport aux Lettres. […] Pour faire des avances du commerce que je vous propose, et dont le principal ­­fruit doit me revenir, je vous envoye les nouvelles Litteraires que des raisons particulieres nous empechent d’imprimer dans nos Journaux.

(2) Mais vous n’etes pas s’il vous plaist dispensé pour toujours de l’obligation oû vous vous estes engagé vous mesme. Il est temps que je vous fasse souvenir que vous m’avez offert un commerce de lettres, et c’est un engagement que je ne pretends point qui soit rompu par les autres soins dont vous venez de vous charger. Ayez donc la bonté d’executer ce que vous m’avez promis, et trouvez bon que je vous en sollicite.

An International Community of Scholars

By Melanie Racette-Campbell

Latin was the international language for academics and intellectuals during Sloane’s lifetime; an Englishman and an Italian might not share a common modern language, but if they were educated they both knew Latin. Many of the Latin letters were published in whole or in part in the Philosophical Transactions, but Latin was also used for personal correspondence, requests for patronage, and medical consultation – in other words, for the same range of purposes as Sloane’s correspondence as a whole.

Most of Sloane’s Latin correspondents were either professional or amateur scientists of some sort, especially botanists, anatomists, and naturalists. Many of the writers of Latin letters either were or would become fellows or foreign members of the Royal Society, and the content of the letters reflects this: they were almost always on scholarly matters, at least in part. These were generally short reports on a specific incident or findings, as for example the report sent by a certain Dr. Bullen about an unusually large bladder stone or barometric records sent from Switzerland by Jacob Scheuchzer, a physician and naturalist. A particularly frequent correspondent, Pieter Hotton of Leiden, sent catalogues of recently published books or else the books themselves to Sloane. Along with scholarly matters, the Latin correspondents (as Hotton did here) often included messages to mutual friends in England, requests for news about these friends, and announcements about significant personal events. The Latin letters were social as well as scholarly, and show us a tightly knit international community of scholars.

But the Latin letters came not only from continental Europe: more of Sloane’s Latin correspondents wrote from the United Kingdom than any single other country, and one letter included text copied from a letter from a Jesuit priest in Japan. When residents of the British Isles wrote in Latin, they were generally writing for scholarly purposes, just like the European letter writers. In fact, two letters written in Latin by an English speaker, the Scottish surgeon/apothecary Patrick Blair, outline a plan for a scientific book on medicinal plants to be written in Latin. This suggests that even between those who shared the same language, Latin was often still considered the right language for intellectual matters.


Melanie Racette-Campbell, who is just finishing her Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Toronto, worked as a research assistant on the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence Online Project. She received her B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology and M.A. in Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies from the University of Saskatchewan. Her research interests include Latin poetry and gender and sexuality in the classical world.

Glimpses into Daily Life: The Earthquake of 1703

In January 1703/4, Ralph Thoresby (an antiquary of Leeds and fellow of the Royal Society) sent Sloane a collection of accounts of an earthquake in the north of England on Childermas Day (December 28th) around five in the evening. Thoresby’s letter, and a second one on the earthquake, appeared in the Philosophical Transactions 24 (1704). The earthquake had been strongest in Hull, so Thoresby wrote first to the “most suitable person I know” there: Mr Banks, The Prebendary of York and Vicar of Hull. Thoresby also had accounts from friends and relatives across the north of England: his sister (a Parson’s wife), a minister who was related, and a minister named Mr Travers. The story is interesting on its own merits, but it also reveals much about the overlap between religion and science, the collection of scientific information and the activities of daily life.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Hull (17th century). Source: Wikipedia, Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection, University of Toronto.

Mr Banks had relatively little to say for himself, having been walking through the noisy town streets on his way “to visit a sick Gentleman”. His Reader, however, the “ingenious good man” Mr Peers, had been writing at his desk and was “affrighted” when the desk and chair began to heave and the chamber and window shook. Mr Banks had twenty more such accounts from tradesmen. Mrs Banks had been concerned about the china in her closet [small private room] falling on her, while the rest of the family heard the pewter and windows rattling. Some of the accounts were more amusing. A neighbouring gentlewoman found her chair lifted so high that she thought her “great Dog had got under it”. And in a nearby ale house, the company was so merry that they did not even notice the chimney falling down. Only the landlady’s mother, who was in a chamber on her own, “felt the shock so violent, that she verily believ’d the house to be coming down” and nearly fell over. The accounts from Thoresby’s relatives and friends were similar.

The earthquake came one month after the largest natural disaster in the British Isles, the Great Storm of 1703. Mr Banks concluded that “Famines, Pestilences and Earthquakes, are joined by our Blessed Saviour, as portending future calamities.” In this case, he feared “the approach of some more dreadful Earthquake” and he prayed “God of his infinite mercy to avert his future Judgments.”

As Thoresby’s reports suggest, the exploration of the natural world and a firm belief in God went hand-in-hand in the eighteenth century. Thoresby had a longstanding interest in natural events such as unusual weather or earthquakes, and several of his letters on these subjects were published in the journal. Thoresby was typical of his time. Like Mr Banks, he believed that these events were signs from God. But these were not merely punishments. By Divine Providence, God might show his favour by protecting people from the worst. The terrible storm and the recent earthquake were warnings to be heeded. But if one could uncover the cause of these events, it might be possible to prevent them in the future.

NPG D27320; Ralph Thoresby by J. Baker, after George Vertue, after James Parmentier, line engraving, circa 1696 (with permission of the National Portrait Gallery)

Thoresby’s letters also reveal his information gathering process. Although Thoresby had not been in Hull, he knew just who to ask. In less than a month, Thoresby had heard back from Mr Banks, who had spoken to at least twenty-five people about their experiences. Thoresby then passed it on to Sloane who, as Secretary of the Royal Society, might publish the account in the Philosophical Transactions. It was, nonetheless, important to establish the credibility of one’s sources. Mr Banks was “suitable”, Mr Peers “ingenious good” and several of the others were listed as ministers, gentlewoman, or “Parson’s wife”. These were the accounts that received precedence, being from people considered reliable. This list also highlights Thoresby’s wider social and intellectual networks. Thoresby might be a fellow of the Royal Society and have access to Sloane’s attention, but his own information gathering occurred primarily within his own social group, the middling ranks of clergymen and tradesmen.

The accounts also tell us what was going in Hull at five in the afternoon when the earthquake happened. Mr Banks was walking through the lively town centre, on his way to visit a sick person. Mrs Banks kept the china in her closet, which is where she was, and many of the family members were at home. The Banks family were also obviously comfortable in their domestic arrangements, owning as they did both pewter and china. Mr Peers, Mr Travers, and twenty tradesmen were busy writing at their desks. A neighbouring woman kept a large dog, which was clearly known for causing similar domestic havoc. The nearby ale house, run by a woman, was thriving, and at least one member of her family lived above. Thoresby’s relative the minister was visiting a gentleman and his sister was “sadly frighted” while alone in her room. The drama of the earthquake contrasts sharply with the homeliness of regular activities.

A short scientific report, perhaps. But one that offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of Thoresby and his friends – encapsulating their religious beliefs, information networks, social status, family relationships, and cozy domesticity.

Making Friends in Early Modern England: Sloane and the Willughbys

The narrative usually associated with Sloane’s early career is one of luck, key patrons, and opportunities. It goes something like this… In 1685, aged 25, Sloane finished his medical degree at the University of Orange and moved back to London. Robert Boyle, his friend, helped Sloane to obtain an apprenticeship with the famous Thomas Sydenham. Two years later, Sloane had another wonderful opportunity when he became personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle, the new Governor of Jamaica. He returned to London in 1689, after the Duke died, but had during his stay in Jamaica found a wealthy wife and started an extensive exotic botanical collection. From this point, his career was set.

But Sloane’s correspondence suggests that Sloane worked hard to build up his own social and patronage networks. What often gets left out of the grand narrative of immediate success is that Sloane remained a household physician for four years to the widowed Duchess of Albemarle (who remarried, becoming Duchess of Montagu). A comfortable position, perhaps, but one of dependence. It wasn’t until 1693 that Sloane became an independent man. He began his private medical practice and became second secretary for the Royal Society. He also started a friendship with the Willughby family. In early modern Europe, patronage and friendship were closely related—the word ‘friend’ could refer to either, or both. Sloane’s relationship with the Willughbys reveals his care in cultivating friendships.

The Willughbys were a gentry family known for their naturalist interests. Francis Willughby (d. 1672) had been an active Royal Society member and his children Thomas and Cassandra also took an interest in natural history. Miss Willughby oversaw her brother’s gardens and catalogued her father’s library. They also had a connection with a close friend of Sloane’s, John Ray. Francis Willughby was Ray’s patron, giving him employment as household chaplain and tutor to the children and leaving him a generous annuity to continue his scholarship full time. Making friends with such a family could only help Sloane’s career.

Cassandra Willughby married widower James Brydges, Duke of Chandos in 1713. Sloane advised the Duke, who was involved in the Royal African Company, on botanical matters and slave inoculation. (Chandos family portrait by Kneller, 1713. Source: National Gallery of Canada, Wikimedia Commons. )

Sloane wrote the first letter to Miss Willughby on behalf of the Duke of Montagu in November. Lord Montagu enquired after the family’s health, remembering their ‘greate favours to his sonne the last summer’ (BL Sl. MS 4066, f. 164). In a second letter, this time on his own behalf, Sloane presented two favours (BL Sl. MS 4068, ff. 13-14). He shared the news that he had successfully proposed Thomas Willughby for fellow of the Royal Society and enclosed a recipe for cashew sugar enjoyed by Miss Willughby at Montagu House.

These were offerings to potential friends, but also emphasised Sloane’s scientific connections and sociability. The Royal Society nomination was Sloane’s initiative, ‘Mr Thomas Willughby giving me leave to propose him’. Sloane promised that when Willughby came to London, ‘I will wait on him & carry him thither’, something that further marked Sloane out as a well-connected member of the Royal Society.  Introducing the new Fellow was not just a courtesy, but gave Sloane a chance to show his own extensive network.

The recipe for Miss Willughby was particularly meaningful, suggesting at its most basic that he had attentively noticed her food preferences. Recipe exchange was also a form of social currency. Bonds were strengthened through sharing secret knowledge and assuming future reciprocity. The recipe also featured cashews, an imported, high-status food that casually referenced Sloane’s and Miss Willughby’s shared interest in botany. Sloane would later provide the Willughbys with other favours; his early offer of service to the family established a long-lasting relationship.

Willughby’s family home, Wollaton Hall (Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, 1773). Source: British Library, Wikimedia Commons.

In return, the Willughbys often consulted Sloane on medical matters. The correspondence does not specify other ways in which the Willughbys reciprocated, but there are hints. When Willughby thanked Sloane for his help in finding a house to rent, Willughby complained that he had not been able to come to London and instead hoped that he ‘could tempt [Sloane]’ to visit him in Nottinghamshire soon BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 13). The invitation was a return of Sloane’s help and indicated a genuine interest in seeing a friend.

Sloane also used his position with the family to request favours on behalf of John Ray’s family.  At Ray’s death in 1705, for example, his widow Margaret told Sloane that the family had been left with £40 annually. She appealed to Sloane to ask Willughby for half a year’s salary that would cover the costs from Ray’s illness and funeral. Willughby was indeed ‘very sorry Mr Ray has left his family in so ill a condition’ and given Ray’s reputation and service, was ‘willing to doe what you ask of me if there is reasonable occasion in charity to the widow to doe it’ (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24). Willughby provided other support to the family, sending £20 to Sloane for them and discussing a Ray monument (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 22).

Sloane’s assistance must have been effective. Margaret Ray thanked Sloane in 1706, sending her gratitude to Willughby. In this case, Sloane tapped into his other friendships to help the Rays.  The Willughbys were Ray’s patrons, with Thomas Willughby paying £12 more annually than his father’s will specified (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24), but Mrs Ray did not feel able to approach them directly.  Sloane, however, was in a good position to help, being Willughby’s friend and social equal.

When Sloane met the Willughbys, he was at a transitional point in his career. He was starting to be able to use his newfound status to expand his circle of friends and potential sources of patronage. By the early eighteenth century, Sloane had developed extensive scientific, medical and collecting networks through which he could obtain, give and negotiate favours. Sloane’s success was not just a matter of luck and important patrons, but was closely tied to his efforts in building relationships and exchanging favours, just as he’d done with the Willughbys. The idea of winning friends and influencing people as a career strategy is not just a twentieth-century concept…

And Sloane was very, very good at it.

A longer version of this case is discussed in my soon-to-be-out chapter, “Friend and Physician to the Family” in From Books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and His Collections, eds. M. Hunter, A. Walker and A. MacDonald (University of Chicago Press, 2012).