The narrative usually associated with Sloane’s early career is one of luck, key patrons, and opportunities. It goes something like this… In 1685, aged 25, Sloane finished his medical degree at the University of Orange and moved back to London. Robert Boyle, his friend, helped Sloane to obtain an apprenticeship with the famous Thomas Sydenham. Two years later, Sloane had another wonderful opportunity when he became personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle, the new Governor of Jamaica. He returned to London in 1689, after the Duke died, but had during his stay in Jamaica found a wealthy wife and started an extensive exotic botanical collection. From this point, his career was set.
But Sloane’s correspondence suggests that Sloane worked hard to build up his own social and patronage networks. What often gets left out of the grand narrative of immediate success is that Sloane remained a household physician for four years to the widowed Duchess of Albemarle (who remarried, becoming Duchess of Montagu). A comfortable position, perhaps, but one of dependence. It wasn’t until 1693 that Sloane became an independent man. He began his private medical practice and became second secretary for the Royal Society. He also started a friendship with the Willughby family. In early modern Europe, patronage and friendship were closely related—the word ‘friend’ could refer to either, or both. Sloane’s relationship with the Willughbys reveals his care in cultivating friendships.
The Willughbys were a gentry family known for their naturalist interests. Francis Willughby (d. 1672) had been an active Royal Society member and his children Thomas and Cassandra also took an interest in natural history. Miss Willughby oversaw her brother’s gardens and catalogued her father’s library. They also had a connection with a close friend of Sloane’s, John Ray. Francis Willughby was Ray’s patron, giving him employment as household chaplain and tutor to the children and leaving him a generous annuity to continue his scholarship full time. Making friends with such a family could only help Sloane’s career.
Sloane wrote the first letter to Miss Willughby on behalf of the Duke of Montagu in November. Lord Montagu enquired after the family’s health, remembering their ‘greate favours to his sonne the last summer’ (BL Sl. MS 4066, f. 164). In a second letter, this time on his own behalf, Sloane presented two favours (BL Sl. MS 4068, ff. 13-14). He shared the news that he had successfully proposed Thomas Willughby for fellow of the Royal Society and enclosed a recipe for cashew sugar enjoyed by Miss Willughby at Montagu House.
These were offerings to potential friends, but also emphasised Sloane’s scientific connections and sociability. The Royal Society nomination was Sloane’s initiative, ‘Mr Thomas Willughby giving me leave to propose him’. Sloane promised that when Willughby came to London, ‘I will wait on him & carry him thither’, something that further marked Sloane out as a well-connected member of the Royal Society. Introducing the new Fellow was not just a courtesy, but gave Sloane a chance to show his own extensive network.
The recipe for Miss Willughby was particularly meaningful, suggesting at its most basic that he had attentively noticed her food preferences. Recipe exchange was also a form of social currency. Bonds were strengthened through sharing secret knowledge and assuming future reciprocity. The recipe also featured cashews, an imported, high-status food that casually referenced Sloane’s and Miss Willughby’s shared interest in botany. Sloane would later provide the Willughbys with other favours; his early offer of service to the family established a long-lasting relationship.
In return, the Willughbys often consulted Sloane on medical matters. The correspondence does not specify other ways in which the Willughbys reciprocated, but there are hints. When Willughby thanked Sloane for his help in finding a house to rent, Willughby complained that he had not been able to come to London and instead hoped that he ‘could tempt [Sloane]’ to visit him in Nottinghamshire soon BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 13). The invitation was a return of Sloane’s help and indicated a genuine interest in seeing a friend.
Sloane also used his position with the family to request favours on behalf of John Ray’s family. At Ray’s death in 1705, for example, his widow Margaret told Sloane that the family had been left with £40 annually. She appealed to Sloane to ask Willughby for half a year’s salary that would cover the costs from Ray’s illness and funeral. Willughby was indeed ‘very sorry Mr Ray has left his family in so ill a condition’ and given Ray’s reputation and service, was ‘willing to doe what you ask of me if there is reasonable occasion in charity to the widow to doe it’ (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24). Willughby provided other support to the family, sending £20 to Sloane for them and discussing a Ray monument (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 22).
Sloane’s assistance must have been effective. Margaret Ray thanked Sloane in 1706, sending her gratitude to Willughby. In this case, Sloane tapped into his other friendships to help the Rays. The Willughbys were Ray’s patrons, with Thomas Willughby paying £12 more annually than his father’s will specified (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24), but Mrs Ray did not feel able to approach them directly. Sloane, however, was in a good position to help, being Willughby’s friend and social equal.
When Sloane met the Willughbys, he was at a transitional point in his career. He was starting to be able to use his newfound status to expand his circle of friends and potential sources of patronage. By the early eighteenth century, Sloane had developed extensive scientific, medical and collecting networks through which he could obtain, give and negotiate favours. Sloane’s success was not just a matter of luck and important patrons, but was closely tied to his efforts in building relationships and exchanging favours, just as he’d done with the Willughbys. The idea of winning friends and influencing people as a career strategy is not just a twentieth-century concept…
And Sloane was very, very good at it.
A longer version of this case is discussed in my soon-to-be-out chapter, “Friend and Physician to the Family” in From Books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and His Collections, eds. M. Hunter, A. Walker and A. MacDonald (University of Chicago Press, 2012).