Category: History of Science

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.

Of a leveret brought up by a cat

Tales of cross-species ‘friendships’ always warm the cockles of our modern hearts. It is difficult not to be charmed by accounts of Koko the Gorilla’s attachment to kittens and her grief when one died, or tales of a tiger suckling piglets . Early modern people were also fascinated by these odd pairings. In 1654, for example, John Evelyn reported that he “saw a tame lion play familiarly with a lamb” at a London fair. (Evelyn also stuck his hand in the lion’s mouth to touch its tongue—not sure I’d have taken my chances, no matter how tame the lion!)

In 1743, Montague Bacon, the Rector of Newbold Verdun in Leicestershire, offered up another strange pairing for the interest of Sir Hans Sloane (BL Sloane MS 4066, f. 127). “Pray tell Sr. Hans”, he wrote to Captain Tublay, “that my brother has got a Leveret, that has been suckled & bred up by a cat”. Not quite lion and lamb status, but still…

The cat & the Leveret are as fond of one another, as can be. The Cat take’s it to be of her own kind, & sometimes bring’s live mice to it to teach it it’s own hare: and when she see’s, that the Lever[e]t has no relish of the employment, she boxe’s her ears for not learning her bus’ness, as she should do.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Both animal odd couples were clearly curiosities, but viewers would have had very different interpretations. During the Interregnum (1649-1660), the lion and lamb pairing would have had religious and political resonance. Religiously, it evoked Isaiah 11:6 and the dual nature of Christ (lion as conquest and lamb as sacrifice): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

"Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" by Edward Hicks - under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” by Edward Hicks – under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the lion and lamb pairing also showed up in Royalist works celebrating the return of the king, such as the popular ballad “The King Enjoys His Own Again”:

When all these shall come to pass,
then farewell Musket, Pipe and Drum,
The Lamb shall with the Lyon feed,
which were a happy time indeed:
O let us all pray, we may see the day,
that Peace may govern in his Name:
For then I can tell all things will be well
When the King comes Home in Peace again

The leveret and cat pairing was a much cozier domestic matter. It took place within the home of Bacon’s brother and the cat acted as mother to the leveret, even trying to teach the leveret to hunt. Bacon emphasised the cat’s maternal instinct as overriding its predatorial instinct, so much so that he never even indicated why and how the cat came to be suckling the leveret. (But perhaps it was something like this account of another cat and leveret.) England of 1743 was at peace, but the ever-expanding British empire that brought them into contact with new people, lands and animals: could they be brought under British domestication, too? A homely little tale of predator and prey living together might have been very appealing.

Bacon’s interpretation also has similiarities with our own modern tendencies in anthropomorphization; we look for examples of nurturing behaviours–our own best selves, as reflected in the animal world. But his interpretation differs from ours, as well. Where we might read the animal behaviour as emotion (as with the video showing Koko’s grief), Bacon was more circumspect in making that comparison, describing the pair “as fond of one another, as can be”.

In any case, the real animal curiosity as far as Bacon was concerned, was not the cat and leveret relationship. In the letter, he gave as many lines to another point of interest:

I know not whether it be a curiosity to mention, that our neighbor Mr. Crawley has a breed of white, quite white Game hares. The young ones are speckled, when young, but grow quite white, as they grow up. Sr. Hans can tell whether these things are worth mentioning or not.

Now that line of enquiry is very different from our modern interests, but certainly fit with the eighteenth-century attempts to classify the world around them. When looking at accounts of animal friendships, then and now, context is indeed everything.

A Most Dangerous Rivalry

By James Hawkes

The Royal Society is in turmoil as competing factions battle for control. Not only is our hero Hans Sloane’s job on the line, but the very existence of the Royal Society hangs in the balance…

 Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

No this is not the TV Guide summary of a niche costume drama, but the results of a bitter dispute between Dr. Hans Sloane and Dr. John Woodward in 1710. Not only did these men have starkly different visions for the future of the Royal Society, but they were competitors for rare curiosities and specimens. It’s perhaps not surprising that the men became rivals! Woodward launched a concerted campaign to unseat Sloane, which nearly succeeded.

Woodward, professor of Physic at Gresham College, championed a highly empirical and experimental approach for the Royal Society. He resented Sloane’s tendency to publish an increasingly ‘miscellaneous’ assortment of articles in  the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions–particularly those written by Sloane’s friends. (This was, admittedly, a complaint even by men who liked Sloane!) Woodward naturally considered the man most disadvantaged by this unjust state of affairs to be himself.  He made it his mission to save the Royal Society from those he feared would undermine the scientific progress of mankind.

Sloane and Woodward actually had much in common: they were both medical doctors with a deep-seated curiosity about the natural world. They were also active in the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Both earned considerable respect for their scholarly endeavours: Sloane, for his botanical work on the West Indies, and Woodward, for his prolific writings, especially on geology. Each man had a circle of scientific contacts across the British Empire and the Continent.

Sloane and Woodward also built impressive collections of natural and antiquarian items, preserved for posterity by (respectively) the British Museum and the Woodward Professorship at Cambridge. Woodward is even on record in a letter to Sloane declaring that he thought himself Sloane’s friend… albeit in the context of trying to explain away intemperate remarks about Sloane.

But the Devil is always in the details. Sloane had a reputation for collecting pretty much anything that fell into his hands. Woodward, however, focused on what he thought to be academically useful. These different approaches helped Woodward to drive a  wedge between Sloane and Sir Isaac Newton (then President of the Royal Society), who had little respect for Sloane’s collecting habits.

The situation finally exploded in 1709 when Sloane, as First Secretary of the Royal Society,  published a book review by Woodward’s long-standing enemy Edward Lhwyd. In his review of the work of a Swiss geologist, Lhwyd went out of his way to ridicule Woodward’s theories. Woodward demanded satisfaction. One contemporary said he did not know if the affair would end

whether by the sword or by the pen. If the former, Dr. Mead has promised to be Dr. Sloane’s second.(Levine)

A distinct possibility for resolving the conflict. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Noodleki

One conflict resolution option. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Noodleki.

Dr. Mead was, of course, another one of the many enemies that Woodward was so good at making. Indeed, ten years later Mead and Woodward duelled to resolve a dispute on the best way to treat smallpox. There are many versions of what happened. According to one, with Woodward defeated Mead bellowed, “Take your life,” to which Woodward replied, “Anything but your Physic.” But that is another story.

In an attempt to keep the bickering between Woodward and Sloane from escalating into violence, Sir Isaac Newton forced Sloane to publish a retraction, indicating he thought some of Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward’s plans to overthrow Sloane nonetheless continued apace. Woodward managed to get a friend, John Harris, elected secretary. He then proclaimed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby that:

Dr. Sloane declared at the next Meeting he would lay down…. He guesses right enough that the next step would be to set him aside.

Woodward and his faction were so confident by this point that he criticised Newton as incapable. Harris even invited Newton’s nemesis, Leibniz, to write for the Transactions. Perhaps Woodward’s ambition was becoming so great that he hoped to be Newton’s successor as President of the Royal Society–an honour that would fall to Sloane much later, in 1727.

The power struggle culminated when Sloane was presenting on bezoars to the Society. Woodward attacked Sloane’s thesis and Sloane, unable to come up with a reply, allegedly resorted to making faces at Woodward.  These grimaces were “very strange and surprising, and such as were enough to provide any ingenuous sensible man to a warmth.”

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If only we knew what the grimace was… Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Council was convened to resolve this controversy once and for all. They debated whether Sloane had actually been making faces and whether Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward seemed on the brink of victory, but then lost his temper when Sloane denied the charges: “Speak sense, or English, and we shall understand you!” Woodward, unwilling to apologize was summarily kicked out. He then claimed that Sloane had packed the Council with his cronies, complaining to no avail of the “Mystery of Iniquity that reigns there.His friend Harris was soon enough replaced and so his entire revolution fell apart.

Although it may be more amusing to think of these eminent doctors as perpetually busy with childish bickering, they were capable of acting professionally on occasion. Even after this great controversy Woodward was willing to recommend  Sloane to a patient and attempted to enlist Sloane’s support to obtain a lucrative new position. Still, their showdown does appear to have put a bit of a damper on their correspondence, and it would seem that their relationship never entirely recovered.

As it happened, with Woodward gone, Sloane and Newton soon fell to sniping at one another. When Sloane was forced to resign as secretary in 1713, Woodward ended up on the side of Sloane against Newton, who Woodward now saw as an evil tyrant holding the Society back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?



Benedict, Barbara. “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012).

Levine, Joseph. Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

MacGregor, Arthur. “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane,” Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. Ed. Arthur MacGregor. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

Storms, Sounds and Authorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soni Moto

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Inspired by the season, I started playing with my database of Hans Sloane’s correspondence to see how many items from The Twelve Days of Christmas to my wondering eyes should appear. Although some substitutions were required, all twelve days are represented—and, in turn, hint at the breadth of Sloane’s collections, medical practice and epistolary network.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… an account of the King hunting partridge from 8 in the morning until four in the afternoon in August 1724. It is unspecified whether any partridge was also in a pear tree. In a stunning twist for the song, George was also hunting rabbits and the trip had to be cut short because of a storm. Safety—and partridges—first, everyone. In any case, the King and his party were very tired after such a long day.

For the second day of Christmas, I found no turtle doves, but there are pigeons. And they are just as good, maybe even better, since I’ve never heard of anyone eating dove. Thomas Hearne, in an undated letter, reported that he was coughing up blood and receiving medical help from the Duchess of Bedford. All he was able to eat was milk and pigeon. Not my usual choice of dinner, but to each one’s own.

For the third day of Christmas, I was unable to locate any foreign hens. There was, however, an odd pheasant hen sent by John Hadley in 1721. He thought that Sloane might enjoy dissecting the hen because her feathers had changed several years previously from the usual hen colours to that of a cockerel.

I hoped to find collie birds (blackbirds) or calling birds (song birds) for the fourth day of Christmas—and I found several of each in one letter! In 1721, Richard Richardson sent Sloane the eggs and nests of several types of birds, including larks, thrushes, crows and blackbirds. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for being so obliging.

Gold ring with container, supposedly--but unlikely--held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Gold ring with container, supposedly–but unlikely–held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But what about five gold rings? I happily settled for one with a fancy, though indecipherable, inscription from Charles Preston in 1699. One ring to rule them all?

The geese, laying or otherwise, posed the greatest trouble. Goose does come up in the database, but only as a description. Mark Catesby in 1724 compared another bird specimen to a goose in size and Emelyn Tanner in 1727 described a deformed baby as having down like a goose.

The only swans mentioned in the letters are pubs, though the drinkers may or may not have been swimming in their drink. For example, Richard Richardson (1729) referred to a carrier from Preston who would be staying at the Swan in Lad Lane, London. Or Antony Picenini stayed at the Swan Tavern in Chelsea, hoping that a change of air would benefit him while he recovered from (unspecified) surgery on his thigh.

There were some maids mentioned in relation to milk, but only one maid doing any milking—in this case, drinking milk rather than fetching it. In 1725, Matthew Combe was treating Sophia Howe, Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline, for a bad cough. The patient had been drinking asses’ milk, commonly given to people suffering from chest troubles.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Although there were no drummers drumming, there is at least a drum. In 1729, Elizabeth Standish of Peterborough was planning to send Sloane “a Negro drum”. No other details were given, such as where the drum came from or how Mrs Standish had acquired it. Could this be the same Akan drum still held at the British Museum?

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

There is only one reference to a piper actually piping. In 1723, Timothy Lovett reported that he had been treating his long-standing phlegmatic cough (forty years) by smoking a pipe: “I have used my selfe to smoking several years about 5 pipes a day but it is ready to make me short breathed. I find it opens and loosens ye body.” Smoking as a cure… it worked until it didn’t, apparently.

Now, the Lords and Ladies were apparently too dignified to mention their leaps and dances to Sloane, but the subject of their exercise does occasionally come up. I offer you one Lord, the Earl of Derby, and one Lady, Lady Clapham. Derby suffered from swelling and bad breathing in 1702. He was “most pusled what to do about exercise, which is so necessary, but the least causes my legs to swell so”. Lady Clapham was also ill in 1702 and her regular physician despaired of the elderly woman’s skin disorder, hard swellings all over her body. He wasn’t sure if “the cause of this disease may proceed from a great stomach & little exercise or a great surfeit of cherries in London”. Tough one…

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth's "Noon", from Four Times of Day (1736).

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth’s “Noon”, from Four Times of Day (1736).

Since I clumped Lords and Ladies together, I’ll end with an 1842 version of Twelve Days which has twelve bells ringing.  After Sloane was elected President of the Royal Society in 1727, the bell-ringers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields honoured him by ringing the bells. St. Giles only has eight bells today and, in 1727, would only have had four bells. But no matter, it’s the thought that counts and a four-bell honour is pretty darned fine!

And on that (ahem) note, I wish a Merry Christmas to all.

Strange Pigs

There are strange pig tails in the midnight sun
From men who moil for hog’s stones
The science trails have their secret tales
That would make monstrous piglets groan;
The English nights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that marge on the note of Stephen Gray
Concerned with porcine impersonation.(1)

Pig tales occasionally show up in the Sloane Correspondence, and they are inevitably crackling good fun. But what do pigs have to do with the history of science? A while back, Samantha Sandassie (@medhistorian) wrote a fascinating post on the role of pigs in early modern medical history: besides providing a useful addition to one’s diet, pigs were often the subject of wondrous stories. By the eighteenth century, they were also the subject of Royal Society interests: classifying strange objects from animal bodies, understanding the development of fetal deformities, and analysing the composition of food stuffs.

John Morton, a naturalist who described fossils and wrote The Natural History of Northamptonshire, wrote to Hans Sloane about an extraordinary hog’s stone in April 1703. Morton thanked Sloane for his friendship and promised his service in return; this included sharing his work in progress on fossils. The description of the hog’s stone was, presumably, a taster for Sloane, but Morton also mentioned the possibility of sending it as a gift to the Royal Society. Sloane’s patronage was desirable, but even more so was attracting the interest of the Royal Society, and Morton was successful in both.

On the 30th of November 1703, Morton—nominated by Sloane’s rival, John Woodward—was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. By June 1704, Morton had gifted the stone to the Royal Society after they had favourably received his account of it. A seemingly small offering, perhaps, but one that helped to establish a correspondence that continued for over a decade.

Sloane’s family members also sent him objects of interest. On Sloane’s birthday in 1711, his stepson-in-law John Fuller sent “a Couple of Monstrous Piggs, one of them was farrowed alive the other dead, the sow had six Piggs beside, all of them as they should be”. A quick perusal of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society reveals that monsters remained a source of fascination to the Society throughout the eighteenth century.

Disability and deformity were frequently explained in terms of the influence of maternal imagination: that the pregnant woman either had cravings or had been subjected to extreme emotions, either of which could shape an unborn child. (See, for example, Philip Wilson’s article on maternal imagination and disability.) Fuller’s piglets would have been especially intriguing, given that only two of the sow’s litter had been monstrous. What might the study of deformity in animals mean for the medical understanding of human reproduction? And why, moreover, were traits only passed on to some offspring? Food for thought: a fine gift, indeed, for Sloane!

But the strangest pig tale in the correspondence is from Stephen Gray, who was better known for his work on electricity than porcine expertise. Even so, in the summer of 1700, Sloane requested that Gray send further details about the fat of some pork that he had sent to the Royal Society. Gray denied all knowledge of the pork sample, insisting that either someone had the same name or was impersonating him. A fairly random occurrence that raises so many tantalizing questions: was there another Stephen Gray who was a pork expert? Was this a practical joke? And if so, was it intended for the Society or Gray? And what was its point? In any case, the Society clearly wanted to find out more about the chemical composition of pigs.

These three little pig gifts may seem like small tokens, but reflect the roles of patronage, reputation and curiosity in early eighteenth-century medical and scientific knowledge. Now, if only the joke or insult behind Gray’s impersonation could be deciphered: any thoughts?

[1] With apologies to Robert Service and my father, whose favourite poem is Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. I’d started this post in time for Father’s Day post, but was otherwise occupied at the time and unable to finish it.

Image: Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Sir Hans Sloane Birthday Collection: Giants’ Shoulders #70

Sir Hans Sloane, collector and physician, was born on 16 April 1660. To celebrate his 354th birthday, I’m hosting the history of science carnival: Giants’ Shoulders #70. Sloane collected stuff of all kinds, from curiosities (natural and man-made) and botanical samples to manuscripts. He was very thorough… So what does one give the man who had (nearly) everything for his birthday? The gift of knowledge! Hosting Giants’ Shoulders follows–in a small way—in the footsteps of Sloane, who edited the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for two decades.

Newspaper recipes pasted into a manuscript recipe book. Wellcome, WMS 7366, p. 78. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Newspaper recipes pasted into a manuscript recipe book.
Wellcome, WMS 7366, p. 78. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Being a physician was central to Sloane’s identity, so it’s fitting to start off with a round-up of history of medicine links. I must, of course, include a painful seventeenth-century medical case: that of “Samuel’s Stone-induced suffering”. Sloane, like many other eighteenth-century physicians, was no stranger to proprietary remedies; he even had his own special eye remedy. This month, we have “Proprietary Panaceas and Not-So-Secret Recipes”, “Newspaper Remedies and Commercial Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books” and “The Business of Medicine”. Sloane was particularly interested in finding useful remedies and would, no doubt, have approved of our modern interest in reviving old treatments or exploring non-Western ones (“Under the Influence”). He was equally intrigued by indigenous knowledge (as was “A Pirate Surgeon in Panama) and older popular treatments (as was Thomas Scattergood in the early nineteenth century, here and here).

As President of the Royal College of Physicians from 1719, Sloane also would have been familiar with medical disputes and prosecutions against irregular practitioners, such as “Master Docturdo and Fartado: Libellous Doctors in Early Modern Britain”. A post on “The Return of Nicholas Culpeper” finds the traces of Culpeper’s career around London. I’ve often wondered whether Sloane would simply have seen Culpeper as an irregular practitioner, or appreciated what they had in common–botanical interests and willingness to treat the poor.

Photograph of a telescope that belonged to Caroline Herschel. Image Credit: Geni, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of a telescope that belonged to Caroline Herschel. Image Credit: Geni, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

A driving factor in Sloane’s career was his insatiable curiosity. A teacher tells us why the history of science “is essential to engage students”, while “Hydra meets Handel” shows children participating in early modern science by gathering “duck pond detritus”. Sloane also encouraged curiosity in others, including women; for only two examples, he exchanged letters and botanical samples with the Duchess of Beaufort and Cassandra Willughby. There were lots of early modern women who practiced science—and this month, there were posts on Margaret Cavendish, Emilie du Chatelet and Caroline Herschel. Women could also be important patrons of science, such as Angela Burdett-Coutts. (Sloane certainly benefited from the patronage of women early in his medical career, particularly that of the Duchess of Albemarle.)

In his botanical research, Sloane catalogued and classified his specimens. Language was increasingly important in describing experiments and specimens, and was being developed and refined out of necessity. Robert Hooke, for example, coined sixty-eight words including (my favourites) “splatch” and “punk”. Over at Evolving Thoughts, a series on speciation outlines the origins of “speciation”, Linneaus’ contribution and late eighteenth-century developments. There are lots of posts this month about curiosities that might have appealed to Sloane, which I’ve divided into man-made and beautiful objects. Under man-made (and sometimes horrifying) objects, we have Holler’s copper plate, Dead Men’s Teeth (a.k.a. dentures), a Time-Traveling, Vote-Gathering Miraculous Acousticon, Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway and the plutonium box. Under beautiful objects, we have the Salagrama Stones, the Vessels of Hermes, a triangular book about alchemy, Nathaniel Wallich’s specimens, and a colourful atlas.

T. Rowlandson, 1787. A fashionable dentist's practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

T. Rowlandson, 1787. A fashionable dentist’s practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of the reasons that Sloane was so well-known for his botanical expertise is that he had actually travelled to Jamaica early in his career, gathered local knowledge and tried out local remedies. On behalf of the Royal Society, he also requested that some explorers bring back specific items or look into particular issues. In 1700, Edmond Halley returned to St. Helena and reported on the area. Halley’s travel descriptions weren’t intended for the Royal Society, but his travels would certainly have been of interest. Explorers have also been the mappers of new and old areas. There is a series of posts on “A Concise History of Geological Maps”, which highlights the many uses of mapping beyond the geographical (2, 3 and 4). The newest areas are sometimes very far away, such as Martian canals or the centre of the Earth. Getting to some places might have been impossible in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though astronomical photography might help to span the distance. But in the end, the question remains: we can take humans out of their usual lands, but can we take the terrestriality out of the humans?

Experimentation, itself a way of exploring the universe, became increasingly important from the early eighteenth century. This month, I read about Isaac Newton’s experiments as instances of special power, the most famous failed science experiment, the lack of religious barriers to the practice of early modern science, experimental self-asphyxiation and experimental embryology in China. The secrets of the universe, however, are often invisible to the naked eye—perhaps more so than early eighteenth-century people even would have guessed. What about trying to study “the unfashionable ether”, magnetism and light rays, quantum physics… or medieval multiverses and modern cosmic conundrums? And that’s before we even get to time! Sloane would have been familiar with the attempts to measure time and longitude, but less so the pervasiveness of modern standardised time, the ancient methods of measuring the movements of the sun or a twentieth-century physicist’s obsession with time and existence.

Sloane would have been no stranger to scientific disputes (especially since he sometimes played mediator). Recently, there has been much lively discussion among historians of scientists about the T.V. series Cosmos. By and large, historians of science have been highly critical of the choices made: the focus on Giordano Bruno, the inaccuracies in the story of Bruno, frustrating omissions and outright misrepresentations. Other historians were a bit more sympathetic, with suggestions that historians of science need to tell more compelling stories and that we need to provide better alternatives to the Cosmos style of history.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Kunsthistoriches Museum.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Kunsthistoriches Museum.

To end the Sloane birthday edition, I offer some book reviews. Sloane, of course, was constantly adding to his library, as do most historians. You might be interested in acquiring Everyday Renaissance Astrology, The Book of Trees, Ice Time (especially for those of us suffering from this never-ending winter in North America), or Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.

Happy reading! See you next month over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, where Thony Christie will be hosting Giants’ Shoulders #71. His contact details are here, if you want to start sending in nominations for May.

The Problems of an Eighteenth-Century Menagerie

One of my favourite letters in the Sloane Correspondence is a complaint from Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond (ca. 1729-1733).


I received your letter I am obliged to you
for it. I wish indeed it had been the sloath that
had been sent me, for that is the most curious
animal I know; butt this is nothing butt a
comon young black bear, which I do not know what
to do with, for I have five of them already. so pray
when you write to him, I beg you would tell
him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards,
or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.

I am Dear Sir,
Your Faithfull
humble servant

(BL Sloane 4078, f. 66)

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richmond established a well-known menagerie at Goodwood House, Sussex–though it was less famous than his son’s, which included more than one funny-looking Canadian moose. (If you’re interested in the Richmond family’s moose, as immortalized by artist George Stubbs, see Lisa Vargo’s article!)

The Richmond menagerie was by no means unique in Georgian England; the ability to import creatures from across the world expanded rapidly alongside British imperial ambition. Most famous, of course, was the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, which had been around since the thirteenth century and lasted until the 1830s. But across the country, aristocrats kept a wide array of exotic birds and animals by the eighteenth century. For the wealthy, such animal collections revealed their wealth, imperial connections and interests in natural history.

Hans Sloane himself collected living (and dead animals) while he lived in Bloomsbury, as Arnold Hunt reveals over at Untold Lives. As early as 1697, Sloane’s animals were attracting attention. Edward Tyson wrote to Sloane in February after hearing that Sloane’s possum had died. Tyson planned to dissect the animal the next day and wondered if Sloane would join him. In particular, he hoped that Sloane would do some research into what authors had written about possum anatomy. That Sloane’s collection was as likely to include weird pigs and cats as exotic beasts, suggests that his primary interest was to understand and to classify the natural world.

The fascination with strange beasts extended throughout society,  with touring menageries able to attract large audiences. In Man and the Natural World (1983), Keith Thomas recounts a sad case of an elephant that died in 1720 after being exhibited in London, likely made ill by the spectators giving the elephant too much ale to drink. The keepers of travelling menageries, no doubt, were primarily driven by profit. The public interest in the menageries highlights both people’s desire to be entertained and a real curiosity in the natural world beyond Britain.

What of the Duke of Richmond’s motivations for establishing a menagerie, then? The Duke of Richmond’s letter tells us that he was a discerning collector. After acquiring a basic range of powerful creatures that represented the many parts of the globe, Richmond now wanted the more unusual animals. A sloth, for example, would be ideal, being “the most curious creature I know”.  Curiosity was clearly a driving factor for him.

The letter leaves me to wonder what the Duke did with his surplus bears (…and eagles, leopards and tigers), especially given the recent culls at Copenhagen Zoo. Richmond’s description of being “overstock’d” might actually indicate that he kept the animals around. His collection, then, was also about acquisition: six bears might be a bit much, but some duplication was no bad thing. Despite his disappointment in Bear No. 6, the Duke may also have had affection for his unusual pets—shortly before his own death, he had a beloved lioness commemorated in statue-form!

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Collecting animals was not an easy task. A collector might have money and connections, as Richmond did, but that didn’t guarantee that the most-desired animals would arrive. For the Duke’s sake, I hope that the mysterious “he” mentioned in the letter did manage to send back a sloth—because, really, who wouldn’t be charmed by this smiley fellow (or 200 of them)?

This summer, Goodwood House will be holding an exhibition on the Richmond family’s natural history collections.

The Preserved Puppy Proposal

Edmund Curll, a bookseller’s apprentice, wrote to Sloane in 1703 with news of “A Wonderfull production in Nature”: an unusual puppy.

Recently, a Scottish gentleman’s dog had

Whelp’d two Puppies one of them was whelp’d dead and the other that was whelp’d alive being a Male in 24 hours after voided from the fundament another Little Creature wch Liv’d 10 Hours and is now preserv’d in Spirits of Wine.

This, Curll promised Sloane, could “be produced Sr if you please to give yourself the trouble”.

Experiment on a dog. From Joannes Walaeus, Epistola duae, 1651. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Experiment on a dog. From Joannes Walaeus, Epistola duae, 1651. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By 1703, Sloane was already known for his collection of curiosities, but it was in Sloane’s capacity was secretary of the Royal Society that Curll approached him (as the letter’s address specified). Presumably Curll thought that Sloane, in particular, would be unable to resist a strange “Little Creature” born from its mother’s anus.

Dogs, of course, were often used in experimentation, so an unusual specimen may well have been of interest to the Royal Society—though I would have been more curious to examine the mother to determine whether the anal birth had resulted from a congenital problem or an injury caused by the whelping.*

In writing to Sloane, perhaps Curll was hoping to strike up a common interest with a potential patron who was known for buying books as well as oddities—or, maybe, he was just hoping to turn a quick profit on a dead puppy.

Capitalizing on (bad) luck and death was certainly one of Curll’s overall career-building tactics. In 1708, he took over his master’s bookselling after Roger Smith went bankrupt. And his career went from high to high (or low to low), as Curll became infamous as a seller of dodgy remedies to treat venereal problems and a purveyor of cheap dirty books and scandals. He was also known for publishing scurrilous and unverified biographies of recently deceased people, leading physician John Arbuthnot to (allegedly) comment that Curll was “one of the new terrors of death”.

Was it a coincidence that Curll can be spotted trying to sell Sloane a preserved puppy so early in his bookselling life? Or was the puppy a harbinger of Curll’s future approach to his career?

* My internet search history is now filled with some pretty iffy search terms and I’m no wiser, although I suspect an injury. I also discovered that there are a lot of preserved puppies available for sale on ebay and etsy, but no relevant historical pictures of such specimens.

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!