Category: Travel

How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.

Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Early Modern Friendship

By Alice Marples

We all miss our friends – whether they leave for study, work or holidays, their sudden absence in our daily lives can leave a bit of a gap. Most of us are fortunate enough to expect to see them again, sooner or later. Early modern absences were different, especially if they involved a lengthy journey to the New World. With countries at war, and the dangers of both high-seas and unknown lands, letters could take a very long time to go halfway around the seventeenth-century world. There were any number of possible reasons for miscarriage, some more deadly than others. Letters exchanged across these absences can therefore reveal the ways in which routine gossip and friendly banter were used to mask loss and genuine fear.

Neither the correct country or period – but you get the idea! [By Francisco Aurélio de Figueiredo e Melo (1854–1916) via Wikimedia Commons]

While Hans Sloane was in Jamaica, he frequently wrote letters home to colleagues in the Royal College of Physicians, to his scholarly patrons, and to regular punters in various coffeehouses, telling extraordinary tales of the New World. However, there appears to be a difference in the letters exchanged, depending on whether the correspondents were Sloane’s London-based friends or his far-away friends .

Though the highly-esteemed naturalist, John Ray, was a close and loving friend of Sloane’s for many years, he was almost entirely taken up with his own botanical cataloguing work at the point of Sloane’s imminent departure, and seems to think only in those terms: “If you goe to Jamayca I pray you a safe and prosperous voyage. We expect great things from you, no less than the resolving all our doubts about the names we meet with of Plants in that part of America.” Because he did not regularly see Sloane–however frequently they corresponded or visited one another–Sloane’s absence was, for him, no more an insurmountable issue than usual.

Sloane’s physician colleague, Tancred Robinson, on the other hand, missed him deeply. His first letter, in Robinson’s typical off-hand style, covers anxiety with medical banter, betraying his sincere affection and strong sense of Sloane’s physical distance:

My deare Dr This hopes to find you Safe at St Iago notwithstanding the great reports at London of the Drs dying at Sea, and of his being taken by Pyrates; I sacrificed daily to neptune for your preservation, your friends at Dicks and Bettys were mourning for you, but I conforted them with Cordiall and Alexipharmick draughts, they are all well and are like to continue so if they hear often from you, for without your frequent prescription wee can neither have health or so much as life. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 30)

Sloane, too, seems to have preferred to use his correspondence with his closest friends as a way of maintaining the same relationship they had while in close proximity. For example, much of his correspondence with William Courten contained advice for the elderly man on his health, acknowledging that his concern had grown now that he was no longer close at hand to watch over him. Sloane sought to ease the separation by reminding his old friend that he could anticipate his words and, therefore, not miss him at all:

you know my opinion about severall of your distempers & I am almost confident I am in the right, I hope for my sake you will abstaine as much from excesse in wine as the too good & complaisant humour will suffer you, you cannot doe me a greater favour then to be careful of your own health… I have att all times discoursd soe largely my opinion of the state of your body that I believe you may remember every thing very particularly. (Sloane MS 3962, f. 309)

In a later letter, Sloane longs to be reunited (though not at the expense of Courten’s health, however imaginary!): “you may be sure the last I have already is delightfull to me for this is indeed a new world in all things, I wishd heartily for you to day if you could have been back in your chambers at night, I find this place very warme.” (Sloane MS 3962, f. 310)

By writing in a way that maintained the natural, nuanced tones of the friendships left behind, correspondents remained bound together across vast distances. At home, reading letters aloud could conjure up the image of a person in the space they used to occupy. Robinson, for example, deliberately seeks to provoke an anticipated reaction from Sloane:

Wee are all overjoyed to understand by yours… that you weatherd your voyage so couragiously, and was in such good health under a fiery Sun, and new climate. I read your letter to all your friends at Dicks, Bettys, Trumpet, etc. who return you their best services, and hearty wishes for your welfare. Mr Courtin shewd mee your letters, and we often sacrifice a bottle to you. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 33)

Robinson is here either comforting the famously temperate Sloane with the assurance he and Courten are dutifully following his medical advice… Or teasing him over their defiance in his honour! If the latter, it is highly likely that Sloane would have been equal parts entertained, touched and infuriated by his friends in this instance. You can imagine him rolling his eyes as he closed the letter.

A Visit to Seventeenth-Century Jamaica

One of my favourite letters in Hans Sloane’s correspondence is one written by twenty-eight year old Sloane to Sir Edward Herbert on the 17th of April, 1688 (British Library, Sloane MS 4068, ff. 7-9). It’s a lively account of Sloane’s experiences of the new world, including earthquakes and pineapples!

A parodic cosmological diagram showing opposing aspects of the life of colonialists in Jamaica - langorous noons and the hells of yellow fever. Coloured aquatint by A.J., 1800. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A parodic cosmological diagram showing opposing aspects of the life of colonialists in Jamaica – langorous noons and the hells of yellow fever. Coloured aquatint by A.J., 1800. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane had arrived in Jamaica in December 1687, after a three month journey, to be the personal physician of the Duke of Albemarle, Governor of Jamaica. Although Sloane suffered from sea sickness during the journey, followed by a fever on arrival, he had settled into his new surroundings by April. His ailments had been but a trifle—“a little seasoning (as I call it)”—and he had since enjoyed perfect health.[1] The climate, Sloane noted, was also more hospitable than people in England assumed. Mornings and evenings might be hot, but the rest of the day was temperate; “I’m sure”, he wrote, “I have felt greater heat in some parts of France then ever I did here”. 

On the subject of local diet, Sloane wrote that the fruits were not as good as European ones. Pineapples, he thought, were “far inferior” to pippins, but the watermelons were “very good”. The local water was particularly excellent and he insisted that “it has preserved my life I’m sure”. Perhaps it had, since he was in good health—unlike the settlers he treated, such as the Duke of Albemarle and his crony, the Admiral Henry Morgan, whose dissolute behaviour was well-known. Many settlers, Sloane suggested, had “a false principle concerning the climate” and ended up killing themselves “by adding fewell to the fire & drinking strong intoxicating liquor”. Sloane’s letter hints at an underlying belief that whereas intemperate men would find a tropical climate difficult, a temperate man would find it temperate.[2]

Since February, Sloane had come to “dread” the local earthquakes. He described the start of a local quake:  “I finding the house to dance & cabinetts to reel I look’d out at window to see whither people remov’d  house or no”. When he noticed the birds “in as great a concern as my selfe” and another shake occurred, he realised what was happening. He promptly “betook [himself] to [his] heels to gett clear of the house”.  Before he even reached the stairs, the earthquake was over.

Sloane’s later report in the Philosophical Transactions (issue 209, 1694) is less humorous, but provides details about both the earthquake and his life in Jamaica. He was, for example, specific about the timing. Three small shocks occurred at eight in the morning, lasting only a minute. The report also included accounts from across the island. Ships in the harbour felt it, but one man on horseback didn’t even notice. A gentleman on his plantation “saw the ground rise like the Sea in a Wave” as it headed northward. Minor though it was, the earthquake still caused damage. Many houses were “crack’d”, “ruin’d” or lost tiles.

In the Phil. Trans., Sloane also revealed tidbits about his residence in Spanish Town and other Jamaican buildings. Sloane lived in a “high Brick House”. It must have been a good size, as he had to pass through two rooms to get to the staircase to go down. There was apparently a third (or fourth?) floor since “a pair of stairs higher” suffered the most damage from the tremors, with most items on the shelves falling down.

King's Square, St. Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), c. 1820-1824. Most of these were late eighteenth-century buildings, although as early as 1672, it was a good sized area with 2000 households. Original: Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica Scan: Internet Archive

King’s Square, St. Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), c. 1820-1824. In 1672, it was a good sized area with 2000 households. The buildings in this picture date to the late eighteenth century.
From Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica. Source: The Internet Archive.

The island’s Spanish architecture, in contrast, was very practical: low houses consisting only of ground-rooms, with supporting posts buried deep in the ground. This, Sloane explained, was “on purpose to avoid the Danger which attended other manner of building from Earthquakes”. He noted, for example, that “Inhabitants of Jamaica expect an earthquake every year” and that some believed “they follow their Rains”. Given the frequency of earthquakes in the region and the impracticality of Sloane’s residence, it was a good thing for him that this was a minor one.

While in Jamaica, Sloane did more than collect flora and fauna specimens and treat his patients. He keenly observed the world around him, whether it was the taste of fruit and water or the style of local buildings. Sloane might harshly judge the habits of the settlers, but his 1688 letter reveals an otherwise affable and curious young man who was enjoying his stay in Jamaica, even if he didn’t care for pineapple.

Or earthquakes.

[1] This referred to the process by which Europeans believed they would acclimatize to non-European climates, diseases, foods and waters.

[2] This fits with Wendy Churchill’s argument that Sloane attributed diseases to behaviour rather than to different climates or group complexions: “Bodily Differences? : Gender, Race, and Class in Hans Sloane’s Jamaican Medical Practice, 1687-1688”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60, 4 (2005): 391-444.

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.

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 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 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, 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 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”, 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).

Giants’ Shoulders #55: Curiosities, Utility and Authority

Welcome to the 55th edition of The Giants’ Shoulders, a blog carnival that rounds up history of science blogging from the last month. This carnival takes as themes three issues that would have been very familiar to eighteenth-century collector and physician, Sir Hans Sloane: curiosities, utility and authority.

Richard Greene’s museum at Lichfield, the “Lichfield clock”
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Curiosities for Sloane were wide ranging and could include interesting natural objects, strange stories, or ingenius man-made ones. Over at depictedscience there is an excerpt from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1664): a detailed picture of a fly as seen through a magnifying glass, along with a short description. Strange stories always captured the interest of early modern scientific minds. Adrienne Mayor at Wonders and Marvels writes on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a sea monster, while Laetitia Barber at Morbid Anatomy has some ideas on making your own ghosts. New inventions showed human ingenuity, such as the umbrella-vator from the 1780s (The Appendix tumblr) and the stethoscope (The Rose Melnick Medical Museum). Richard Carter at The Friends of Darwin porposes a theory for what some ancient Roman jars might be, reminding me of early Philosophical Transactions letters. But the greatest curiosity of all this month is the ideal historian of science spotted over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, though perhaps Thomas Young the polymath, discussed at OpenScientist, might have fit the bill.

Sloane, like many eighteenth-century people, believed that knowledge should be beneficial, especially to society as a whole. From Seb Falk we learn that knowing how to use an astrolabe could save your life, while Jonathon Keats at Culture Lab wonders whether the science in Sherlock Holmes stories would actually have worked. Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) recounts the tale of Charles Babbage’s fight against noise pollution, a battle that he eventually (sort of) won. Jai Virdi has a series of posts, starting with “The Pretensions of Dr. Turnbull“, that look at the nineteenth-century debates about the efficacy of Turbull’s treatments for deafness. Turnbull’s methods may have been in question, but Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1876 map of evolution in the natural world has stood the test of time, since it was only just updated in 2012. RIP to Rita Levi-Montalcini, a truly useful person who brought benefits to society throughout her life. She recently died at the age of 103 after a full life in which she overcame anti-semitism, a male-dominated establishment and scientific dogma — and won the Nobel prize.

Sloane lived at a time when medical and scientific authority was in flux, as they tried to establish who should be considered reliable–a question that hasn’t gone away, just changed form. Seth LeJacq discusses the different treatments for breast cancer preferred by early modern surgeons and their patients, while Vanessa Heggie considers the history of dieting advice. Kirsten Walsh at Early Modern Experimental Philosophy suggests that Isaac Newton and his contemporary experimental philosophers had fundamentally different worldviews, while Thony Christie asks who kept Stephen Grey from publishing in the Philosophical Transactions. Possibly Sloane… In December, there was a hullabaloo about science, authority, and criticism, which is summed up nicely by Rebekah Higgit who wonders what scientists and historians each bring to the analysis of science in society.

Museums are sites where authority, utility, and curiosity all come together, much as they did in Sloane’s own collections. At American Science, Lukas Rieppel ponders the rise and fall of a research mission in a natural history museum: what does it say about the broader society when a museum decides that research is no longer important? Sloane, who collected so that he might understand the world around him, would have been troubled by the lack of curiosity in curiosities.

Giants’ Shoulders #56 will be hosted by Michael Barton (@darwinsbulldog) at The Dispersal of Darwin on February 16. See you there!