Category: History of Science

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”…

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

By Anna Marie Roos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Marie Roos, binary options brokers registered with sec Web of Nature: Martin Lister (1639-1712), the First Arachnologist (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Kathie Way, ‘Invertebrate Collections’, In: Arthur MacGregor funziona trading opzioni binarie , (ed.) buy Seroquel diet pill Sir Hans Sloane, Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum (London: British Museum Publishing, 1994) opzioni binarie discacciati . pp. 93-110.

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

Missed Opportunities in Early Modern Exploration?

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

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

By Matthew De Cloedt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Trip to the Canary Islands, 1699-style

Sunset, 22 June 2013: Costa Adeje, Tenerife. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

Sunset, 22 June 2013: Costa Adeje, Tenerife. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

Research is never really far from my mind, even when strolling along the seaside promenade or sipping mojitos as I did last week in Tenerife.

An idle thought crossed my mind as I basked in the sun, alongside the funky Tenerifan lizards and bright-red British tourists: are there any letters about the Canary Islands in the Sloane Correspondence?

Given the importance of the Canaries as an early modern stopping point for ships heading to Africa, or indeed the New World, I would have guessed that there would be several. At present, however, there are only two letters on Sloane’s correspondence that mention the Canary Islands. Both letters were written by the botanist and entomologist William Vernon. In 1699, Vernon was granted £20 by the Royal Society to visit the Canary Islands. He had recently returned from a successful visit to Maryland, where he had collected several specimens. With an eagerness to travel and an eye for collecting, Vernon would have been a good choice to make the trip.


The old port town of Garachico, Tenerife. In 1706, the port closed because of a lava flow from a volcanic eruption. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

But he missed the boat.

In February 1699, Vernon was waiting to hear of any ship bound for the Canary Islands. With the spring being later there, he hoped that he still might acquire spring plants—and, fortunately, the autumn would last until mid-November, allowing ample opportunity to collect summer and autumn specimens, too. In the meantime, Vernon remained busy trying to find more specimens of sea plants around Margate. This was tricky, since this time of year was the “barrenest” for sea plants.

By May, it was clear that Vernon would not be going to the Canaries after all. He reported that he had been unable to find a ship bound for the Canaries since he’d seen Sloane and thought it was now too late to make the funded voyage. Instead, he would travel around the countryside. He promised Sloane at least four or five curiosities that would be of interest to the Royal Society.

The English countryside: not really the same as the Canaries! But interesting all the same. And, as all funding bodies (and academics) know, good research plans often change along the way. Vernon never did take a trip to the Canaries, although he remained in regular contact with both Sloane and the Royal Society.

What I’m intrigued by, though, is why Vernon had such trouble finding a ship bound for the Canaries. Readers: any ideas?

An Eighteenth-Century Botanist, Silk Merchant and Miner

Illustration of silkworm moth, 1792. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By Matthew De Cloedt

After reading Hans Sloane’s opzioni binarie indicatore mt4 Natural History of Jamaica Henry Barham saw an opportunity to strike up a correspondence. Barham first wrote Sloane in 1712, praising the utility of the Buy Tastylia (Tadalafil) Online No Prescription NHJ and relaying that the two men had much in common. He then informed Sloane of his hopes to contribute to the project of researching the natural history of Jamaica, enticing him with unique information, odd specimens, and curious accounts of great slave healers.

Barham pursued each of his pastimes with great enthusiasm. A surgeon by trade, he was described by a jealous contemporary as a “Botanist-Silk-Merchant-Miner” after a political appointment by Jamaica’s Governor.[1] With a keen eye for business Barham used his knowledge of the island to impress upon Sloane the great economic opportunities it presented. There was more than a hint of truth to his critic’s contention, however, for Barham sought financial support from Sloane for ventures in botany, mining, mercantilism, and silk production.

In 1716 Barham traveled to London to explore the possibility of silk production in England. Staying at Great Carter Lane, he better acquainted himself with Sloane and was soon given the opportunity to present his short treatise, trader opzioni binarie An essay upon the Silk-worm, to the Royal Society. Barham’s presentation must have gone well, for Sloane proposed him as a fellow in 1717. This was important, but only the beginning of the undertaking as far as Barham was concerned. As the investigation was “design’d for the Publick” what Barham really desired was exposure to individuals who could invest in his business.[2] To that end he sent Sloane multiple skeins of silk to be shown to the latter’s great network of contacts.

Sloane proved more useful than Barham could have imagined, connecting him to King George I’s physician Johann Steigertahl. In turn, Steigertahl ensured that Queen Sophia read Barham’s tract and promised to lobby the King on his behalf. This would have been a great coup for Barham, as he would have gained financial support and the royal seal of approval. Steigertahl assured Sloane the Queen was very interested in the possibility of producing silk domestically, assuring him the proposal was “well received when I offered it to Her Majesty.” Sophia believed it was possible to create an industry in England for she knew of “a good strong silk” produced near Luneburg. If silk was successfully cultivated in the German climate what was stopping the English from entering the market?

Steigertahl was required to stay close at hand while the Queen consulted with Mr. Appletree and Charles Spencer (third earl of Sunderland). Reassuringly, James Stanhope (first Earl Stanhope) promised Steigertahl he would personally speak to the King about the prospect of royal patronage for Barham’s silk business. Thus, Sloane was led to believe the prospects were good and the project might lead to collaboration with the Crown. Sloane’s letters to Barham are not in the collection, but given the positive tone of Steigertahl’s communications it would have seemed that there was a good chance Barham would soon be managing a silk farm.

Unfortunately things did not turn out as expected. Barham returned to Jamaica in 1720, either full of hopeful expectations for royal support or heartbroken that nothing came of Sloane’s correspondence with Steigertahl. Like his many other attempts to use Sloane to gather investors Barham’s attempt to produce silk in England floundered. Perhaps Barham was one of the many who lost opportunities after the South Sea Bubble burst.

Henry Barham truly was a “Botanist-Silk-Merchant-Miner.” Though his many attempts to use Sloane for material gain were failures he proved a useful contact. A significant amount of information that Barham collected on the medicinal qualities of plants in Jamaica was published in the second volume of Sloane’s important problematiche iq option Natural History of Jamaica. However, recognition for his contributions to natural history was only part of Barham’s mission. Evident in his correspondence with Sloane is his desire to capitalize on the economic opportunities in Jamaica, England, and the Americas. He continued to write Sloane after the failure of his silk scheme, but his desire to become a wealthy man never materialized. Henry Barham died at his Jamaican home in 1726 in much the same position as when he first contacted Sloane.

[1] Raymond Phineas Stearns, “Colonial Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 1661-1788”, topoption opzioni binarie 60 secondi Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 8, no. 2 (Apr., 1951), 205.

[2] Henry Barham,“A Letter of the Curious Mr. Henry Barham, R. S. Soc. To Sir Hans Sloan, Bart. Vice-President of the Royal Society; Giving Several Experiments and Observations on the Productions of Silk-Worms, and of Their Silk in England, as Made by Him Last Summer”, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 30 (1717-1719), 1036; Henry Barham, An essay upon the Silk-worm (London, 1719).

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.

The Moon and Epilepsy in the Eighteenth Century

A long-standing myth about epilepsy is that it is tied to the lunar cycle, worsening during the full moon. Just Google it to see what comes up in the search… But the boundary between what we see as myth and what eighteenth-century people saw as medicine is blurry, as a quick search of the Sloane Correspondence database for epilepsy shows.

A man suffering from mental illness or epilepsy is held up in front of an altar on which is a reliquary with the face of Christ, several crippled men are also at the altar in the hope of a miracle cure. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In February 1739, physician Christopher Packe consulted with Sir Hans Sloane about Mr Roberts’ recent epileptic fit (BL Sl. MS 4076, f. 220). Before describing the fit, Packe specified that it occurred on the morning of the full moon. Before the fit, the patient appeared wild and suffered from a numb leg and a swollen nose. In the hopes of preventing a seizure, Packe prescribed a vomit. Mr Roberts, moreover, had been diligent in following Sloane’s orders: a restricted diet and various medicines. Everything was being done that could be done, to no avail, and Packe was “apprehensive” of the next full moon.

An undated, unsigned letter came from a gentleman aged 28, who had been “seized with epilepsy two months ago” after having no fits between the ages of 16 to 20 (BL Sl. MS 4078, f. 329). Epilepsy ran in his family, he reported, with his mother being “subject to it or at least violent hysterick disorders from girlhood” and his father having seizures for several years before death. The patient wondered if the trigger had been his change from winter clothes to spring clothes, as well as drinking more than usual for several weeks prior to the recurrence. The timing of his changed lifestyle could not have been worse, since “about three days before the full moon immediately preceeding the Vernal equinox he fell into that fitt”.

The focus of these letters on full moons and clothing changes may seem superstitious to us today—and the parallel between epilepsy and hysteria perplexing—but reflected the wider medical understanding of the time. Botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (with whom Sloane studied in France) and physician Thomas Sydenham (with whom Sloane worked in England) considered hysteria and epilepsy to be related: convulsive disorders that affected the brain.[1] According to contemporary treatises, other related ailments included vertigo, palsy, melancholy, fainting, and rabies.[2]

Well-known physicians Thomas Willis (1621-1675), Richard Mead (1673-1754) and John Andree (1699-1785) discussed some of the old stories about epilepsy. Willis and Andree noted that epileptic fits were so shocking to observers that they had, in previous times, been attributed to demons, gods or witchcraft.[3] Willis’s remedies may appear just as magical to modern eyes, but they would have been common in early modern medicine. There was also a key difference: he treated epilepsy as natural rather than supernatural. Willis began his treatments with a careful regime of vomits, purges, and blood-letting to prepare the body for preventative remedies. These included concoctions of male peony, mistletoe, rue, castor, elk claws, human skull, frog liver, wolf liver, amber, coral (and so much more), which would help in tightening the pores of the brain. Some of the medicines were also to be worn on the body rather than ingested, perhaps a silk bag (elk hoof, mistletoe and peony roots) at the waist or an elder stalk amulet at the neck.[4]

By the time Andree was writing, some of Willis’ seemingly magical recommendations had been lost, although most of the remedies remained the same. Andree, however, looked beyond the brain for the source of the problem. He emphasised that it was important to identify the underlying cause of the epilepsy: humoral obstruction, plethora of blood, head injury, worms or fever.[5]

The moon, viewed in full sunlight. Stipple engraving, 1805. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The moon continued to be important in Mead’s and Andree’s understanding of epilepsy. Mead argued that the human body was intimately affected by the influence of the sun and moon, with epilepsy and hysteria being particularly subject to lunar periods. The most critical of these were the new or full moons around the vernal and autumnal equinox, moments of important change. Mead was particularly interested in periodicity within the human body, which included periodical hemorrhages (including menstruation). Using the same rationale for explaining men’s periodical hemorrhages, Mead seemed to suggest that weak or plethoric (too much blood) bodies were particularly subject to the lunar cycle.[6]

Andree took the effects of the moon on epilepsy as a given, recommending that epileptic patients be given vomits around that time. He focused on the necessity of regulating the body through good management to prevent weakness and plethora. Drunkenness and gluttony, erratic emotions or sudden frights, overuse of opiates, excessive sexual intercourse could all trigger epilepsy. Puberty, with its rapid changes to the body, was a dangerous time when epilepsy might go away altogether, or worsen. Epilepsy that did not go away was thought to result in gradual degeneration—stupidity, melancholy, palsy, cachexia (weakness)—that would be difficult to treat.[7]

No wonder Sloane’s patients were so worried! For Dr Packe, Mr Roberts’ condition would have appeared to be deteriorating, in spite of the best efforts of doctor and patient. And the unnamed gentleman, given his family’s medical history, must have blamed himself for making potentially disastrous choices at one of the worst times of year. Timing was everything when it came to epilepsy. In Sloane’s lifetime, many old ideas about epilepsy had been relegated into the realm of myth, but a connection between the full moon and epilepsy remained as firm as ever.

 [1] Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Materia medica; or, a description of simple medicines generally used in physick (1716), pp. 84, 265; Thomas Sydenham, Dr. Sydenham’s compleat method of curing almost all diseases, and description of their symptoms (1724), p. 150.

[2] See, for examples, Richard Mead, Of the power and influence of the sun and moon on humane bodies (1712); John Andree, Cases of the epilepsy, Hysteric Fits, and St. Vitus Dance, & the process of cure (1746); Thomas Willis, An essay of the pathology of the brain and nervous stock in which convulsive diseases are treated of, 2nd edition (1684).

[3] Willis, p. 11; Andree, p. 7.

[4] Willis, pp. 18-20.

[5] Andree, pp. 3, 10-12.

[6] Mead, pp. 31-42.

[7] Andree, pp. 10-12, 25.

An Unusual Case of Menstruation in Eighteenth-Century England

“Mrs Wilson’s Case”, undated and unsigned, appears in the final volume of Hans Sloane’s Medical Correspondence and Cases (Sloane MS 4078, f. 372). Mrs Wilson’s troubles began the previous spring. She noticed in May that her tongue was occasionally sore when she ate, which she assumed must have been the result of a loose tooth cutting it. An obvious conclusion, with a seemingly obvious treatment: having the tooth pulled. But she waited until July before taking “a Friends Advice” to do just that.

Watercolour drawing of a Hunterian chancre situated on the dorsum of the tongue, 1892. The patient was a young woman, aged 22. Credit: St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Images.

Mrs Wilson’s tongue continued to worsen and she called in “an old experienced surgeon”, who prescribed medicinal gargles of all kinds. By August, it was clear that the gargles were not helping. Mrs. Wilson had a noticeable ulcer on her tongue. This time, the surgeon prescribed other remedies to treat internal blockages, possibly caused by a scorbutic or venereal problem. He gave her mild mercurial pills and purges.[1] He salivated her.[2] He applied a seton to the back of her neck.[3] He gave her a linctus.[4]

Nowadays, we might think these sorts of remedies were overkill in treating a mere mouth ulcer, when surely a topical treatment like Bonjela would do the trick! But the use of the term “ulcer” to describe Mrs Wilson’s problem is misleading for modern readers; in early modern usage, “ulcer” referred specifically to an open sore that seeped morbid matter. This was a much more serious problem. She had other symptoms, too, such as a pinching in her throat and pain in her ear and head. The swelling of her tongue kept increasing.

During treatment, the sore had been “ebbing and flowing”, which initially gave some hopes of a cure, but when a fungus developed over it, the surgeon “confessed it to be a discouraging case”. He consulted a second surgeon, who seemed to have more success. The fungus cleared up within a week, allowing the second surgeon to focus once more on the ulcer—at least until the fungus reappeared within a fortnight. This was treated quickly, but the fungus again returned again two weeks later, and started to spread up the tongue. This was becoming cyclical. Another fortnight passed, at which point both surgeons decided to consult Sloane.

One section of the case, marked “N.B.” to indicate its importance, explained that the salivation had “brought her Courses [menstruation] uopn her before the Time, but she has never had them since.” Indeed, the situation took an odd turn: “Some time after the salivation the Tongue voided Blood wch the old surgeon acknowledged might be the Courses flowing to the Part & bled her in the Foot.” Mrs Wilson had since been bled twice, but “the Blood continues to flow thither periodically”.

Mrs Wilson, it appeared, was menstruating through her tongue. This process, known as vicarious menstruation, has been neatly described in a blog post by Helen King: nature seeking an alternative path out of a woman’s body when her menstrual flow was suppressed. The dominant explanation for menstruation was that the body needed to purge itself of a plethora of blood, which men ordinarily excreted through sweat; plethora would continue to build up in a person’s body, leading to a variety of health problems if it was not released. Common forms of vicarious menstruation included nosebleeds, coughing up blood, or bleeding haemorrhoids.[5] These alternative flows might have been ‘natural’, but they certainly weren’t desirable; the new pathways had been created by the acidity of the stagnant, corrupted mass of blood.

So what did the eminent physician Sloane think? His response is cryptically indicated by the prescription that he scrawled on the top of the page in two lines of Latin abbreviations. He agreed with some of the first surgeon’s treatments, recommending first that Mrs Wilson be bled from the foot. This was a common method of drawing down a woman’s menstruation and re-establishing its correct path. He also aimed to treat the corrupted blood, which was causing the ulcer, by means of a cathartic electuary (a strong purge). Sloane, however, may have been a bit sceptical about the mercurial treatments, as suggested by his prescription for gold powder—a treatment to counteract mercury poisoning.

The tongue itself was an unusual location for vicarious menstruation, but certainly not impossible: any open sore offered a potential exit for retained blood. Helen King wondered in her blog post how patients suffering from vicarious menstruation might have reacted. Mrs Wilson’s case describes her physical pains, as well as the discouragement of the first surgeon, which hints at her experience. But perhaps the simple list of symptoms is evocative enough: swollen tongue, ulcer, fungal growth and periodically bleeding tongue. Enough said. It puts my teeth on edge.

[1] Mercury was used to treat venereal and scorbutic problems, which were thought to result from a hot, poisonous humour.

[2] A treatment that aimed to drain bad humours of the body through a continuous flow of saliva.

[3] A small surgical hole in the skin, kept open to allow drainage of bad humours.

[4] A cough medicine, presumably in this case an expectorant one to expel the phlegm in the lungs.

[5] On menstruating men, see my Wonders and Marvels post. On a periodically bleeding leg ulcer, see Sara Read’s post.