About the Correspondence

The Source

In many ways, the project’s name–The Sloane Letters Project–highlights the nature of the source. This is not a project about Sir Hans Sloane and his close circle; it is about the letters that other people from a wide range of groups wrote to him. Making the correspondence searchable beyond the authors of letters allows us to find specific topics, or people (women, the non-elite, and non-Europeans) who would otherwise be invisible.


The Letters

The Sloane correspondence is a rich source for researchers, providing insight into several aspects of the past such as: family history, medical treatments, illness experiences, doctor-patient relationships, family history, patronage, libraries, postal and shipping history, collections, or scientific networks. Although the letters primarily come from well-to-do literate people, the social status of correspondents was wide ranging, including lower-ranking medical practitioners, lower-class curiosity salesmen, and petitioners for charity.

Notably, the letters are often a mix of topics. For example, one letter might very well discuss a meeting of the Royal Society, the process of collecting, and a medical issue! Some letters have multiple authors, or were forwarded to Sloane through several hands, while medical letters might even ask for advice on several cases at once. This means that individual letters will often appear under multiple categories, listing several people, and have many layers of description.

The collection is vast, comprised of thirty-eight volumes of approximately 350 folios each, with authors writing from across the world–the British Isles to China–on a range of scientific, scholarly and medical matters. Sloane, as Secretary and later President of the Royal Society, was at the heart of the scientific world, while his patients came from the highest levels of society. He was, after all, a Royal Physician and, from 1719 to 1735, the President of the Royal College of Physicians. Although Sloane kept most of the letters written to him, he preserved few of his own draft letters. Even so, Sloane can be found through his hastily scrawled Latin prescriptions on patients’ letters or through letter-writers’ references to their encounters with Sloane and his family.


The Collection

The Sloane MSS 4036-4069 and 4075-4078 (British Library, London) contain Sloane’s correspondence, ca. 1680-1745. MSS 4036-4069 are largely scientific and occasional medical letters, while MSS 4075-4078 are only medical letters. The first thirty-four volumes are organised by date and alphabetically, while the medical letters are organised alphabetically.

There have been some previous attempts to index the letters, but only by author. The main finding aid is E.J.L. Scott, Index to the Sloane Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1904, reprinted 1971). Scott indexed over 4000 volumes of Sloane Manuscripts according to class headings ranging from art and astronomy to theology and zoology, but (unsurprisingly) Scott did not index the contents of individual letters. He did, however, also provide short descriptions of authors where possible. Although Adam Matthew Publications provides a listing by correspondent or MSS 4036-4069 and the British Library has a search function for the index records of each manuscript, such searches are most helpful when a researcher knows a specific author’s name. They are not helpful when a researcher is looking for a particular topic or other people mentioned.

The Sloane Letters database at this site allows researchers to search several volumes in more powerful and useful ways. The database can be searched by names, terms, places or even sex (for example) and will bring up any related references. At present, the following Sloane MSS are available for searching: 4036-4053 and 4075. The database also contains letters from each of the following: Sloane MSS 4054-4055, 4066, 4068-4069 and 4076. Several entries also include transcriptions. Further entries and transcriptions are being made available gradually.