Category: News

Looking to the Edge, or Networking Early Modern Women

It’s a funny thing, really, that after several decades of women’s history in the academic world, historians should still need to be told how to go about finding women. ‘Look to the edges’, exhorted Amanda Herbert in her keynote address for ‘Networking Early Modern Women’. This was no less than a call to arms, especially amidst the #femfog (in which a prominent medieval historian claimed that feminists intimidate and victimize men, obscuring manly good sense in a feminist fog).[1]

V0007640ETR Angels, demons and representations of flesh and the devil cr Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Angels, demons and representations of flesh and the devil crowd around a stool upon which the different elements that make up a human burn and smoke; representing a test of faith. Etching by C. Murer after himself, c. 1600-1614. 1622 By: Christoph MurerPublished: 1622 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The origins of #femfog? C. Murer, c. 1600-1614. Image Credit: Wellcome Images, London.

The goal of the add-a-thon, hosted by the great Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project, was to add more women into the database’s networks. And the Sloane Letters team[2] was (virtually) there! As Hillary Nunn noted in a review of Six Degrees, there were initially few women in the database, in large part because the project drew heavily on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when identifying networks.

Elizabeth Monck (née Cavendish), Duchess of Albemarle, after Unknown artist etching and line engraving, late 18th to early 19th century NPG D30497 Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Elizabeth Monck (née Cavendish), Duchess of Albemarle, after Unknown artist. Image Credit: NPG D30497, National Portrait Gallery, London.

From a Sloane perspective, the Six Degrees database also lacked any of the women in Sloane’s networks–even though much of Sloane’s early patronage came from women. For example, Sloane was the Duchess of Albemarle’s household physician for several years after returning from Jamaica. The Duchess later married the Duke of Montagu, and Sloane was consulted by the extended Montagu family.

Sloane also corresponded with women about a range of subjects beyond medical treatment. Widows like Margaret Ray, Margaret Flamsteed, and Anna Hermann consulted him about bookselling and publishing. Some women, such as the Duchess of Bedford and the Lady Sondes, asked for advice about family matters. Other female correspondents shared an interest in natural philosophy; Cecilia Garrard, for instance, sent him specimens and the Duchess of Beaufort discussed botany (and, at her death in 1715, bequeathed him her herbarium). All of this I know through long familiarity with Sloane’s correspondence.

But what does the picture of women’s networks look like if we take a step back from individual letters to examine the cumulative data in the Sloane Letters database?

To prepare for the Six Degrees add-a-thon, research assistant Edward Devane extracted all of the Sloane Letters references to women who were born before 1699–the cut-off date for inclusion in the Six Degrees database. I also asked him to create a shortlist of women who had clearly strong connections with Sloane: women who appeared frequently, referred to social contact, or wrote several letters. There were 339 female individuals on the long list who were mentioned in the letters at least once. But for the shortlist? A mere twenty-seven women.

Look to the edge, indeed!

The group of strongly connected women picked up several crucial relationships, such as Sloane’s friendship with Lady Sondes; his old family connection to Anne Hamilton (dowager Countess of Clanbrassil); and his assistance of Margaret Ray, widow of Sloane’s good friend John Ray.

But the most important connections in Sloane’s life were only to be found in the margins. This was quite literally the case for his family relationships (wife and daughters) who appear in postscripts, along the lines of: ‘My humble service to your Lady and daughters’. There are also occasional references to his other female family members—mother, nurse, sisters, aunts… As for the Duchess of Albemarle, she was mentioned only a few times in a handful of letters from Peter Barwick.

Of course, it is not surprising that people whom Sloane saw frequently do not appear in the letters, but their absence obscures the social, family and patronage networks that would have been important to Sloane’s daily life. Although the women remain hidden as strong connections when extracting basic data, the Sloane Letters database can still be searched by name or relationship, which makes it easier to sift through the masses of correspondence to find scattered references to his family networks.

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Then there are the female correspondents who didn’t even appear in the list at all because they signed their names using initials. Take, for example, J. Squire who wrote to Sloane in 1731. There is nothing in the letter that explicitly suggests that J. Squire was a woman. However, the linkage of the three names—Squire, Abrahm de Moivre and Sloane is telling. Jane Squire had a proposal to determine longitude, which attracted the interest of De Moivre and Sloane. How many other women are to be found lurking behind initials in the correspondence?

What we mean when we talk about networks might also need to be broadened when we look to the edge. Do we just trace important people with wide networks? Do we just trace those whose biographies can be verified? Just how inclusive should we be?

A family group of a woman and four children flanked on either side by figures of children. Engraving by Aug. Desnoyers after himself after Raphael. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A family group of a woman and four children flanked on either side by figures of children. Engraving by Aug. Desnoyers after himself after Raphael. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane’s loose connections present a number of women who saw Sloane as a part of their network, even if the women did not play a meaningful role in his life. Mrs. E. Martin wrote to Sloane in 1725 and 1726 asking for his help in a person situation. Her lover, Mr. Knight, had abandoned her and their children to marry another woman. By 1726, the situation was worse: Mr. Knight had her confined, removed her child, and frozen his payments to her. Mrs. Martin noted that Sloane had once treated her. This was typical; there were several one-off letters from former patients asking for assistance, presumably because Sloane was one of the most important people they knew.

However, the names that Mrs. Martin dropped in the letters also suggest that she thought Sloane might have personal influence: Mr. Knight, Mr. Isted, and Mr. Meure. Isted was Sloane’s son-in-law, while Knight and Meure were friends of Isted and Sloane. Perhaps these other connections were a little too close, because Sloane dismissed her altogether:

I rec’d yors & am in no manner of condition either to advise or relieve you being perfectly a stranger to what you write & not in a possible way of helping you, being full of affairs in my own profession that I have neither time nor abilities to be assisting to you.

Mrs. Martin was, indeed, a woman found at the edge—of survival and social networks.

At first glance, looking at the list of letter-writers, women hardly factor in Sloane’s correspondence. There were women who wrote directly to Sloane, but most women appear only as subjects, mentioned by medical practitioners, family members or friends (their, er, networks?). One of the reasons that I developed the Sloane Letters database was to make those hidden women more findable; if we describe the letters beyond authorship, women’s stories and networks suddenly become visible.

And it is only by looking to the edges in the first place that the outlines of early modern women’s networks emerge, revealing how women were at the centre all along.

[1] David Perry has a good summary on #femfog and links to other criticisms here:

[2] The team included my University of Essex research assistants (Edward Devane and Evie Smith) and me.

Sloane becomes a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero

By Victoria Pickering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes… and a History Carnival!

If you’re still around, dear readers, then you will have noticed that the blog has remained quiet–despite the end of my maternity leave. There is a reason for this: I have been caught up in a flurry of paperclips and packing. At the start of September, I began a new job as Lecturer in Digital History at the University of Essex.

John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, Essex. The house and some of the parkland are still on the University of Essex campus, 1816.

John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816. The University of Essex is built on Wivenhoe Park. You can still see the house and some of the parkland (but, sadly, not the cows and swans).

This entailed packing up my office of thirteen years (in addition to my house). To simplify my life, I gave books and periodicals to students and sent my article library for recycling, along with all the other masses of paper that accumulate over a career.  In the end, I whittled the library down to a mere 523 books and two boxes of papers. Sloane would scoff, no doubt.

These are the two boxes of papers that escaped recycling and are in the process of being transported by ship to England. Looking at this picutre, I realise that I forgot my little office rug.

These are the two boxes of papers that escaped recycling and are in the process of being transported by ship to England. Looking at this picture, I realise that I forgot my little office rug.

To mark the new academic year and a new job, I’m hosting the 150th History Carnival on October 1.  If you don’t know what a History Carnival is (or missed the last one),  please  check out the 149th one hosted by Ana Stevenson. For Carnival 150, I’m particularly interested in featuring posts on the themes of beginnings, endings or change.* To nominate your favourite blog posts from around the interwebs in September, just fill in this form. I look forward to reading all the nominations.

*But don’t worry if your favourite September post doesn’t seem to fit that theme–nominate it anyway!


On Hans Sloane’s Copies of De Humani Corporis Fabrica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shark Bits and Sloane Bobs

Sharktopus DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Sharktopus DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia Commons, via Syfy.

It’s been an eventful couple months, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected. In case you’re wondering why: I had a baby in mid-June–a little earlier than expected!

The time has been passing in a blur of wonder and delight… and hilariously awful B-movies about sharks. Thank you to the Canadian Space channel for this maternity leave diversion. I’d just like to say that two Sharktopus death scenes were worth the price of my cable subscription for the month: the tentacle death tickle and a deadly pirouette.

The Sloane Project itself continues apace. I have been supervising a great team of Research Assistants this summer. (You can read a bit about them here.) We’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes work on the Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online database. Some of the RAs have also been preparing some blog posts that will appear over the next couple months, starting next week.

Sadly, we have not come across any references to sharks in the Sloane Letters so far.

Note from a Bristol Glassmaker

This weekend, The Sloane Letters Blog celebrated its first anniversary and the recent addition of the 3000th letter to the database! On this occasion, it seems appropriate to reflect on Letter 3000.

Bristol blue glass: unlikely to be the glass in question because it wasn't invented until later in the century. But it sure is pretty! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Arpingston.

Bristol blue glass: unlikely to be the glass in question because it wasn’t invented until later in the century. But it sure is pretty! Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Arpingston.

The short letter was written in late October 1727 by a Bristol glassmaker, Jonathan Rogers. Rogers claimed to have discovered a method of glassmaking that would offer “Universall benefit to the state” and asked for Sloane’s assistance in promoting the technique. This sort of request was by no means unusual. People regularly wrote to Sloane asking for favours, such as providing reference letters or assistance with schemes, and offering to share secrets or give demonstrations.

What was interesting about Rogers’ letter, though, was his reference to recently reading a treatise on natural philosophy by Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680). This is what had inspired Rogers to write to Sloane. I wish that I knew my Glanvill well enough to guess what exactly Rogers had read that encouraged him to write to a man so far above his station.

That a glassmaker might read natural philosophy is not necessarily surprising; technical processes and natural philosophy regularly blurred in early modern Europe. But it strikes me as important that Rogers must have been reading widely. Glanvill, who tended towards the religious side of natural philosophy, is not the obvious practical choice for a glassmaker. The reference also suggests that Rogers expected Sloane, as an educated man, to be familiar with the work of Glanvill.

A short letter, perhaps, but one that might tell us something about eighteenth-century reading practices. If only it also told us the secret of why Roger thought his glass could be of “Universall benefit to the state”…

Carnivalesque: Call for Posts!

A street carnival in Bogotá, with a battle between personifications of medicine and disease. Watercolour by F.-D. Roulin, 1822. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A street carnival in Bogotá, with a battle between personifications of medicine and disease. Watercolour by F.-D. Roulin, 1822. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

During the week of September 7, I’ll be delighted to host Carnivalesque: a round-up of wonderful blog posts–any discipline–on the pre-1800 period. I’ll be celebrating one year of blogging at Sloane Letters and the start of the new academic year.

Carnivalesque runs every six weeks or so. Until Darwin hosted #96 in July, if you want to see the most recent one–or just to catch up with some great posts!

Please send in (lots and lots of) blog posts on pre-1800 topics that have been posted since late July. In addition to excellent posts that you’ve come across on your travels around the blogosphere, please feel free to nominate your own posts for inclusion in Cesque #97.

There is a nomination form, but I’ll also take nominations via comments on this post or email. Read a post… Like a post… Nominate a post!

Citizen Science and Flying Ant Day, in 1707 and in 2013

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

“What the heck!?” I spat, as an ant flew into my mouth. The winged ants were everywhere: crawling on the ground or (seemingly) flying dozily around. It was a warm and humid afternoon and I envied the laziness of the ants. But I had a tube train to catch and I hurried off without paying them much attention. It was only when I arrived in the centre of London and spotted more ants that I began to wonder what was happening.

This was the U.K.’s famed ‘Flying Ant Day’ in which Queen Ants and the males take to the skies in their grandly titled nuptial flight. Although this annual event occurs wherever colonies of ants live, I had somehow never noticed it on the prairies of Canada–only discovering this natural spectacle about ten years ago while walking the urban pavements of London.

The 2013 rush has apparently already started, with ants in places as diverse as Cambridge and Nottingham already having had their day in the sun this week. There have also been several seagull traffic deaths in Devon, caused by the gulls gobbling down too much ant acid.

Last year, the Society of Biology enlisted the aid of “citizen scientists” to keep track of times, dates and weather conditions of sightings. What they found was that the nuptial flight occurs after a low pressure system and within a tight time frame, usually over a few days. The ants also make their flights between four and six in the afternoon.

The idea of citizen scientists compiling data for a scholarly society strikes me as, perhaps, rather familiar: early modern Royal Society anyone? William Derham (1657-1735), for example, was a clergyman by day and a “citizen scientist” by night—specifically, an astronomer—who kept Hans Sloane and the Royal Society apprised of his star-gazing. (I discussed Derham’s interests in another post.) Derham also passed on observations from other people, including Mr Barrett’s* account of flying ants in 1707.

I was lately at our friend Mr Barrets, who desired me to acquaint the Society concerning the Flights of Ants (that made such a noise in London last Sumer) that he hath for many years last past constantly observed the Flight of that Insect on the very same, or within a day or two of that very day of the Month, on which they fell in London. About the year 1689 or 1690 (as I remember) he said he saw a cloud of them, and several times since he hath seen the same. He took it for a Cloud full of Rain approaching towards him, & was much surprized to find it a vast Number of Ants only frisking in the Air, & carried aloft as he imagined only wth the gentle Current of the Air. He is of opinion that they allways come fromward the Westerly points. I hope our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately, that we may make a judgment from what parts they came. The next day after they fell in London, I remember we had in divers places many of them, particularly at Mr Barrets, & South-Weal & Burntwood. I call them Flying-Ants, because Mr Barret (who is a good Judge) said they were such that he saw.

In 1707, people were as fascinated by the sight of flying ants as we are today, with the Flight causing quite a stir in London in 1706. Although observers weren’t even sure if the insects really were ants, or why they were flying in a mass, they were clear on three points: that it was a regular annual event, that air currents enabled the Flight, and that it occurred on multiple days across the south of England.

Over three-hundred years on, we’re rediscovering that Flying Ant Day is region specific in the U.K. and is affected by weather. It is intriguing that modern science still hasn’t explained the specific triggers for the Flight of Ants and has once again turned to citizen scientists to provide a larger data set for study. Despite Derham’s hope that “our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately”, the Royal Society doesn’t appear to have taken much interest in the Flight of Ants. Maybe the Society of Biology will have more success.

If I happen to spot the Flying Ants this year, I plan to take part in the Society of Biology’s 2013 Flying Ant Day survey. This time, I’ll follow in the footsteps of Barrett and Derham by closely observing the natural world at my doorstep instead of dashing past it.

UPDATE, 22 July: The nuptial flight occurred in my London neighbourhood today, just before 5 p.m. I could not avoid observing nature on my doorstep, which had become a graveyard for a number of them. Here are two, caught in between a bit of flying around my garden. (And I did fill in my survey!)

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

*Probably Dacres Leonard Barrett, a member of the Fuller family (relations by marriage to Sloane) and occasional correspondent of Sloane’s.

Making Sense of Hans Sloane’s Collections

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British nation purchased his collection and established the British Museum. Over the next two centuries, the collection was dispersed as new institutions were formed. The Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, acquired Sloane’s plant and animal collections. The British Library, established in 1973, laid claim to the manuscripts and printed books. If this sounds orderly, it wasn’t!

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Just to give a hint of the complexity, it’s worth noting that bits of Sloane’s correspondence appear on the backs of natural history drawings that are held in the British Museum and some of his reading notes appear in printed catalogues at the Natural History Museum.

Considering the scope of Sloane’s collections, it is surprising that relatively little scholarly work has been done on them. But the three institutions are trying to bring Sloane’s collections back together virtually in a fascinating project, Reconstructing Sloane. The first step was The Sloane Printed Books Project, a catalogue that allows researchers to get a sense of what Sloane’s original library looked like and how it changed over time. The second step is a grant that has allowed the institutions to partner with Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London to fund three collaborative doctoral awards. Alice Marples, Felicity Roberts and Victoria Pickering have all taken on the challenge of reconstructing parts of Sloane’s vast collections. To my delight, they will be occasionally sharing the fruits of their research on The Sloane Letters Blog.

Alice (KCL ), who has a background in Enlightenment coffee-houses, is researching Sloane’s correspondence and manuscripts at the British Library. In particular, she is looking at Sloane’s network of colleagues, commercial traders and contributors to understand Sloane’s public persona. Through his correspondence, he was able to construct a space for material exchange, scientific endeavour and social interaction.

Felicity (KCL) has degrees in English and eighteenth-century studies. She is looking at Sloane’s natural history drawings, primarily held at the British Museum, to discover how Sloane interpreted and visualized the natural world. Her study is situated within London’s wider philosophical and literary culture, which disucssed concepts of nature, natural order, truth, beauty and authenticity.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Victoria (QMUL) previously studied the early modern transatlantic slave trade. Her project, “Putting Nature in a Box” examines Sloane’s collection of 12000 small boxes of vegetable substances, which included seeds, bark and curios. Using Sloane’s hand-written, three volume catalogue, she is tracing who sent what items, the origins of the substances, and Sloane’s intended uses for the objects.

What is, perhaps, most exciting about these projects is that they are not undertaken in isolation. The students and their supervisors at all six institutions (and occasionally, me!) have regular seminars. Along the way, seminars have included discussions about readings, visits to the collections or guest speakers. The interdisciplinary collaboration is providing us with an appreciation of the sheer size of Sloane’s collections and how each part fits together.  The students’ individual projects are enhanced by a wider understanding of curation, cataloguing and collecting: how Sloane’s collection has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time. With a collection so large and dispersed, collaboration is also the only way scholars will ever make sense of Sloane’s complete collections.

There are other advantages, too. “Working collaboratively”, writes Victoria, “provides a wonderful support network” and is “an interesting and exciting opportunity”—and besides, there is “nothing quite like being able to talk to another PhD student about your work and for them to know exactly what you’re talking about.” It is also, perhaps, the best way of studying a man who was a super-mediator in his own life, and one who valued the sharing of knowledge. As Alice puts it, this “collective engagement with knowledge production and diffusion is something that Sloane himself would no doubt appreciate!” 

No doubt.

Doctor Sloane and His Patients in Eighteenth-Century England

In April, I received the good news that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada had decided to fund my project “Reconstructing the Lives of Doctor Sloane and His Patients in Eighteenth-Century England” for three years.This may have resulted in an impromptu dance around the room, but fortunately the walls won’t talk…

The dance of death. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The dance of death. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This is in many ways a project born of snoopiness. I have always loved to read about the mucky details of daily life, and the letters written to Sloane offer much by way of gore, suffering and family quarrels. But one thing has always frustrated me in my research: the size of Sloane’s correspondence (upwards of forty volumes, depending on what is counted). So many letters, so many stories, so often hard to find!

The goal of this phase of the project is to complete the database, Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online, and to produce a series of microhistories about Sloane and his patients. While the collection remains indexed only by author (as it largely is still), it is difficult to navigate. The purpose of my database is to make it possible to search Sloane’s correspondence for details, such as people mentioned, social occasions, or specific illnesses. The database also makes it easier to find all references to a patient, whether made by a medical practitioner, friend or parent. This is when, to my way of thinking, things start to get really interesting.

The family records of the Newdigates, for example, show that Sloane treated several members of the family. Elizabeth Newdigate’s letters to Sloane reveal a troubled young woman, beset by family strife that included two siblings with insanity, a lawsuit by the eldest son, and the daughters’ mysterious suit before Parliament (which was dropped) for their father’s “unnatural acts”. Reading the family references in Sloane’s letters alongside the Newdigate papers will be useful in uncovering the family’s dysfunction and the wider context of Elizabeth Newdigate’s illness letters. Gender, age and status all played key roles in the disputes. By reading cases like these alongside available family archives, I can use the medical letters as a point of entry into understanding the moments of illness within the wider context of patients’ and families’ lives.

The database can also be used to trace relationships. Consider, for example, Sloane’s relationship with the Duchess of Albemarle.  Although Sloane went to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle, he remained the Duchess’ household physician when he returned to London and even after the Duchess remarried the Duke of Montagu. The Pierreponts were the Duchess’ birth family, while the Cadogans were related to the Duke of Montagu: both families were regular patients of Sloane’s. In 1719, Sloane’s daughter even married into the Cadogan family. The letters from this group of related families provide insight into the workings of patronage, kinship, and Sloane’s career, as much as their collective health.

Sloane himself is a fascinating subject of study. There are only a handful of letters about Sloane’s family and business in the correspondence, but there are also many small bits of scattered information: what he prescribed, others’ attitudes toward him, references to his opinions, details about property management, clues to his family and social life…  His family life, too, was important for his career. He married Elizabeth Rose (née Langley), who was from a well-to-do London family and a widow of a wealthy Jamaican landowner; her wealth aided his ability to maintain the appearance of a gentleman (important in attracting wealthy clients) and to collect objects from around the world (which reinforced the image of him as a man of science). At the height of his career, Sloane was President of the Royal College of Physicians, President of the Royal Society and a royal physician—a man very much at the centre of the medical and scientific community, with opportunity to influence the health of the nation.

Case histories such as these will allow me to examine the way in which social and political networks, state-building and power structures were reinforced in the everday life of the early modern household.

And, of course, maximise my snoopiness.