Category: Specimens

Public and Private Gardens in the Eighteenth Century

By Chelsea Clark

Sloane was unique in his collecting habits and connections to gardens. He was passionate about obtaining plant specimens and discovering their various medical uses, however, appeared to be less interested in being personally involved in gardening. This is apparent when comparing his practices to those of his friend and colleague, Richard Richardson.

Despite the growing popularity of private gardens in England, Sloane did not have a garden of his own. His method of collecting botanical specimens was to dry them and press them in books, or keep them as seeds. Many of his letter correspondents cultivated gardens of their own and experimented with acclimatizing foreign specimens to English soil. Why did Sloane assist the Chelsea Garden at its time of crisis (mentioned in first post) if he was not trying to gain access to a garden of live specimens? How did his apparent abstinence from gardening connect with his support of the Chelsea Garden for the advancement of pubic botanical knowledge?

Sloane valued the plant knowledge that could be obtained from the garden knowing that it would indirectly aid him in his own pursuits as well as the greater scientific community. The published catalogue of the first transfer of fifty specimens (Philosophical Transactions, 1722) stated that Sloane’s motivation was to “encourage and promote an Undertaking so serviceable to the Publick.”

Curiously, there were no records of letter communication from Phillip Miller, the botanist placed in charge of the Chelsea Garden, to Sloane in regards to the Chelsea Garden. It seems most likely that the lack of correspondence reflects Sloane’s close proximity to the garden and opportunities to see Miller in person. (Though, arguably, it might also suggest that Sloane was disconnected from the garden.)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richard Richardson, maintained a garden of his own at his home in North Bierley. His private garden earned a reputation as the best in North England and housed both native and foreign plants, including a hot house for growing exotic fruits. Richardson collected for his garden himself on explorations as well as obtained specimens through his associations with other private and public gardens. From his letters to Sloane, Richardson appears passionate about exotic specimens, whether it was acclimatizing them to English conditions or fabricating greenhouses to mimic their native growing conditions. This was a much different approach to specimens than Sloane’s.

Richardson mentioned his garden in North Bierley several times to Sloane. It contained botanicals that even the Apothecaries’ Chelsea Physic Garden lacked. Richardson obtained plants for his personal garden from public gardens, such as the Edinburgh Physic Garden. This exchange of plants between private and professional gardens is an interesting feature of English gardens.

These private collectors were also part of an exchange network with Dutch and French professional gardens. One reason was that the men who were collecting, like Richardson, had the wealth and leisure to maintain a garden and were associated with scientific societies like the Royal Society of London. Their collection of botanicals was not just for aesthetic reasons or to display their status, but their scientific functions gave collectors the authority and expertise to trade with the professional gardens of physicians and apothecaries.

In a letter to Sloane dated 13 November 1725, Richardson mentioned an “unfortunate accident” that occurred to some “scotch plants” from the Physic Garden at Edinburgh which he “proposed to have brought back … for my garden.” In addition to collecting from other gardens to fill his own, Richardson mentioned also wanting to make his collecting habits useful to others by collecting plants from northern England for the Chelsea Physic Garden and Mr. Miller. Unfortunately, he ran into some difficulties in creating such a relationship with Miller. On 8 April 1727, Richardson wrote about exchanging mosses with Miller for some seeds. On 19 November 1728, Richardson mentioned receiving a list of desired plants from Miller and had been collecting what was still in season from his garden to send to Chelsea.

Richardson’s attempt at a reciprocal relationship of exchange from his garden to the Chelsea public garden soon fell apart. By 16 March 1729, Richardson had stopped receiving letters from Miller. Even after a visit to Chelsea in the summer, during which Miller promised he would send Richardson a letter detailing which plants the garden was lacking, Richardson wrote to Sloane on 3 November 1729 that he had not received a letter of this sort. For some reason, unknown to Richardson, their amicable exchange ceased. (For more on relationship etiquette see this post regarding Abbe Bignon and Sloane).

Richardson sought out associations with other gardens, and he demonstrated great attachment to and took great care with his own garden. It is likely that Sloane received dried plant specimens or seeds from Richardson’s personal garden that had originally come from Miller at the Chelsea Garden, given that he was recieving other dried specimens from Richardson. Other than that, Sloane’s involvement in the Chelsea garden appears to have been kept separate from his desire to collect and classify, stemming instead from his desire to expand the public’s botanical knowledge and to ensure supplies of medical specimens.


Eighteenth-Century English Gardens and the Exchange with Europe

By Chelsea Clark

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Sloane Correspondence is a rich source of information about gardening in the eighteenth century. The science of gardening at this time was a shared experience between friends and colleagues who traded specimens and cultivated their collections with great curiosity. Although gardens could be either privately or publicly managed, the collaborative aspect of gardening served many different purposes depending on the individual collectors or institutions involved.

English gardens were built for multiple purposes, from personal and private pleasure gardens to university organized and maintained medical gardens. Both the Chelsea Garden and several private upper class estate gardens during the latter half of the eighteenth century in Britain were a combination of these purposes. They were both aesthetic and practical, housing rare exotic treasures to display the owner’s status as well as contained local and distant medical botanicals for practical medicinal uses.

Apothecaries and physicians relied on many botanical remedies and thus needed access to gardens. This resulted in many of them becoming expert gardeners. According to a Parisian physician at the time, Jean Fernel, a competition between apothecaries and physicians inspired an invigorating cultivation of gardens with both common and acclimatized plants in order to maintain “dignity and authority” over the other.[1]

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Chelsea physic garden was originally property of the apothecaries of London, though it fell on hard times in the early eighteenth century. Physician, Sir Hans Sloane, become benefactor to the garden because he saw the value in the botanicals it provided and its potential to provide benefical botanical knowledge for the public. Sloane saw the importance of the garden for all types of medicinal use as well as for the maintenance and growth of botanical trading within England, Europe, and the newly acquired Colonies.

In 1722, Sloane leased a parcel of his land in Chelsea to the Company of Apothecaries of London on the condition that they maintain the garden for “physick” and send the Royal Society fifty specimens per year until 2000 specimens had been given.[2] The reason given for requiring the annual gift of specimens was to encourage the constant growth of the garden and to ensue it continued to be used for its proper purpose.[3]

French gardens were similarly split between public and scholarly gardens, however French gardens were steeped in state involvement with the promotion and running of gardens. The Jardin du Roi, established in 1640, was in name and function the garden of the French King, Louis XIV.  It was also used by the Academie des Sciences for their exploration and acclimatization of botanicals and open to the public. The garden was maintained under state direction, as was the search and collecting of new specimens to fill the garden. It was managed as an economy that was “simultaneously social, financial and natural historical.”[4]

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

French botanical collecting was tied to their colonial expansion and French collectors were most interested in botanicals with economic value.[5] As a result of higher state involvement, French motivations were focused on economic gain rather than scientific curiosity; collecting and cataloging the world’s botanicals was less of a priority, resulting in the cultivation of different types of plants than in England, which centered on medicinal rather than economical specimens.

The discussions about gardens between Sloane and many of his British correspondents did not mention any state support or involvement. Their collecting appeared to be motivated by a desire to discover all the local and exotic species and where they were naturally found. As was the case for France, English collecting in its colonies did have an economic component; however, the perceived economic value of plants was not mentioned as the primary motivator of botanical collectors.

Without immediate state direction both personal and professional English gardens became significant players in the European exchange of botanicals. English private collectors and gardeners were successful at expanding their knowledge of species and contributing to scientific knowledge, while the French were successful at extracting economic value from their exploration of plants. Even though the French gardens were open to the public, the English exchange relationship between the personal collectors and the professional gardens allowed for information about botanicals to spread freely and the development of gardens across England. English gardens had perhaps less economic value than their French counterparts, but provided an abundance of natural history knowledge and practical medicinal value for its public.


[1] Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange New Haven: Yale University Press, (2007): 31.

[2] Isaac Rand, “A Catalogue of Fifty Plants Lately Presented to the Royal Society, by the Company of apothecaries of London ; Pursuant to the Direction of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Bresident of the College of Physicians and Vice President of the Royal Society,” Philosophical Transactions, 32 (1722).

[3] Ruth Stungo, “The Royal specimens From the Chelsea Physic Garden, 1722-1799,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 47, no. 2 (July 1993): 213.

[4] E. C. Spary, Utopia’s Garden Chicago: Chicago University Press, (2000): 51.

[5] Spary, “ “Peaches which the Patriarchs Lacked”: Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Natural Economy in France,” History of the Political Economy 35, 2003: 14-41.

On Tooth Worms

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

The 9th of February is St. Apollonia’s Day and, in the U.S., National Toothache Day. So I offer you tooth-worms, which–as Nicolas Andry described them in An account of the breeding of worms in human bodies (1701)—“occasion a deaf Pain mix’d with an itching in the teeth; they insensibly consume the Teeth, and cause a hideous Stink” (85). On 3 July 1700, John Chamberlayne wrote to Hans Sloane on the matter of his own tooth worms.

Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”.

This idea was still widely held in the late seventeenth century, even by the intellectual elite. For example, at a Royal Society meeting on 18 July 1678, Robert Hooke compared a growth within a tree trunk to tooth rot. At this point, Society members digressed into discussions of worms causing rot and the removal of tooth worms. In one case, a woman extracted the worms with a sharpened quill; in other cases, “the same thing was done by the help of the fumes of henbane seeds taken into the mouth; whereby the saliva falling into a basin of water held underneath, would discover several living worms, supposed to issue either from the gums or teeth”.[1]

Old knowledge could even, seemingly, be supported by investigations using new technologies. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1684, Anton van Leewenhoek described his microscopical observations “about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth”. Leeuwenhoek started with his own teeth, “kept usually clean”. He examined other samples of tooth plaque from two women, an eight-year old and two old men.Using his microscope, he discovered several sorts of creatures, some like worms, in the plaque—so many that “they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. These creatures, though, were present in sound, healthy teeth. Could these be tooth worms?

Leeuwenhoek was not so convinced by 1700 when two of his letters “concerning Worms Pretended to be Taken from the Teeth” was published in the Phil. Trans. He had examined two worms “taken out of a corrupt Tooth by smoaking”, one of which was still alive after four days in the post (sent on 4 July 1700). Leeuwenhoek believed it came from the egg of a type of fly that laid their eggs in cheese. He rounded up more worms from his local friendly cheesemonger and ran several experiments (including watching the worms copulate).

As to how the worms ended up in the teeth… Teeth—or, flesh more specifically—were not the worms’ natural habitat. The flies took nine days to mature, but meat needed to be salted or smoked sooner. Leeuwenhoek instead believed that the worm specimens had come from a patient who

had some time before eaten Cheese laden with young Worms, or Eggs of the above-mention’d Flies, and that these Worms or Eggs were not touch’d or injur’d in the chewing of the Cheese, but stuck in the hollow Teeth.

Gnawing worms had caused the tooth pain. Or did they?

For his work on bodily worms, Andry had also examined some worms “that a Tooth-Drawer took off of a Lady’s Teeth in cleaning them”. Based on this case, Andry concluded that tooth worms rotted the teeth, but did not cause any pain. These small, long and slender worms with round black heads bred “under a Crust that covers the Surface of the Teeth when they’re disorder’d” (38).

To the modern reader, Leeuwenhoek’s argument is more sensible. Sure, there might be microscopic creatures living on the teeth, but they were not the same as the so-called tooth worms… which were really more cheese worms than anything. But at the time, Andry’s version would have been compelling. Worms were thought to breed in unclean conditions and, as Andry made clear, they could breed under a crust on an unhealthy tooth: it was the disorder in the tooth, not the worm, that caused the pain.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When John Chamberlayne, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Sloane about his own tooth-worms, he did so in the interest of advancing knowledge and reporting on an efficacious treatment. He did not ask for Sloane’s advice, but instead reported on his visit to Mr. Upton, known for his “tooth-candling” expertise. Using heat and smoke, Upton removed rheum from Chamberlayne’s gums and extracted ten or twelve worms. This was apparently on the low side, since Upton on a really good day could remove sixty worms.

Chamberlayne claimed that he ordinarily had no faith in men such as Upton (meaning: irregular practitioners, sometimes known as quacks), but many gentlemen of his acquaintance had attested to the success of Upton’s treatment. Of course, given that Chamberlayne also described his teeth as “loose and corrupted”, he may also have been willing to try anything for what must have been terrible pain!

Chamberlayne was familiar with the wider discussions about bodily worms, referring, for example, to Leeuwenhoek’s 1684 article in the Phil. Trans. Besides the report, Chamberlayne may have taken a chance to do his bit for knowledge in another way: he may have sent Sloane some tooth worms. Is it just coincidence that Chamberlayne’s letter to Sloane was dated 3 July 1700 and that Leeuwenhoek referred to worm specimens sent on 4 July 1700?

Whatever the case, one moral of the story is: choose your cheese wisely if you have bad teeth.

[1] Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. 3 (1757): 428.

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.

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.

Mary Davis, the horned woman

By Felicity Roberts

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

Mary Davis by an anonymous artist. Credit: British Museum.

At the British Museum, near the centre of the Enlightenment Gallery in wall press 156, there is a portrait in oils of a woman with what appear to be horn-like growths coming from the side of her head.  The woman has an arresting, impassive facial expression.  She wears no cap, so her head is exposed to the viewer, but she is demurely dressed, with her left arm drawn up and across her body so that her hand rests firmly on her collar. She seems to wait patiently for our observation of her to end.

The inscription on the painting reads:

“This is the portraiture of Mary Davis, an inhabitant of Great Saughall near Ches[ter.]  Was taken Ano. Dom. 1668, Aetatis 74 when she was 28 years old an excrescence rose uppon her head which continued thirty years like to a wen then grew into two hornes after 5 years she cast them then grew 2 more after 5 years she cast them. These uppon her head have grown 4 years and are to be seen […cropped]”.

Today we would say that Mary Davis had developed cutaneous horns.  It is a relatively rare condition in which a lesion or lesions develop on the skin, usually around the face or neck, sometimes protruding several centimetres.  Such lesions occur more frequently in older people and on commonly exposed parts of the body. Although their cause has been linked with sun exposure, underlying skin tumours has also been suggested.  Even with these medical explanations, a person who develops cutaneous horns today may still be the subject of news reports likening their appearance to that of the devil.

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, such persons were treated as both wonders and anomalies of nature [1].  That is to say, their condition was interpreted as both a religious portent and a natural phenomenon.  Davis herself was, as an aging widow, exhibited at the Swan pub on the Strand where members of the public could come to see “such a Wonder in Nature, as hath neither been read nor heard of […] since the Creation” [2].  Yet her portrait was also collected by natural philosophers, and the horns she shed entered various cabinets of curiosity, including, it seems, the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum. Both these specimens are now lost [3].  The interest shown in Davis’ condition is a good example of the overlap that existed between popular and scientific culture in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Sir Hans Sloane certainly had an interest in curious objects, especially ones which seemed to transgress the boundaries between human and animal, natural and monstrous.  He owned a horn shed by a Mrs French of Tenterden which he entered as specimen 519 in his Humana MS catalogue [4].  He also apparently owned the Mary Davis portrait.  In a letter of August 1709 Sloane’s friend Dr Richard Middleton Massey wrote:

“I have been in Cheshire & Lancashire, where I think I have mett with a curiosity, tis an originall picture in oil paint of Mary Davis the Horned Woman of Saughall in Cheshire”

Sloane must have indicated an interest in the portrait to Massey, because in a follow up letter of October 1709 Massey wrote:

“I will send up ye picture the first opportunity if you please call upon Mr Dixon at the Greyhound in Cornhill”

This must be the portrait which now hangs in the Enlightenment Gallery.  Did Sloane also own Mary Davis’ horn, which also entered the British Museum but was subsequently lost?  I have found no evidence for this in the letters as yet!

The provenance of the British Museum’s painting of Davis has long been shrouded in mystery.  Its Collection Online entry states it could have come from either Dr Richard Mead or Sloane.  But I think these Sloane letters suggest that the painting was Sloane’s before it became the Museum’s.


[1] For further information, see Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the order of nature 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001).

[2] J. Morgan (ed.), Phoenix Britannicus: being a miscellaneous collection of scarce and curious tracts […] collected by J Morgan, Gent (London, 1732), 248-250.

[3] Jan Bondeson, ‘Everard Home, John Hunter and cutaneous horns: a historical review’, American Journal of Dermatopathology 23 (2001), 362-369.

[4] Natural History Museum, Sloane MS Catalogue of Fossils, 6 vols. Vol 1, f. 344r.

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

By Anna Marie Roos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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