Spring Books

Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.310.6988.1209 (Published 06 May 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1209
  1. Christopher Booth

    Ed Arthur MacGregor British Museum Press, pounds sterling50, pp 308 ISBN 0 7141 2085 5

    There has been no full length and comprehensive biography of Sir Hans Sloane. Perhaps the task is too formidable for a single person. He lived, after all, to the age of 92, so that, being born in the year of the Restoration, he did not die until the later years of the reign of George II. He first established himself with his Voyage to the Island Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica…with the natural history of the…last of those islands…, derived from his journey to the Caribbean with the Duke of Albermarle between 1687 and 1689. Later he was to become not only president of the Royal Society after Sir Isaac Newton for fourteen years but also president of the Royal College of Physicians for two years longer. His highly successful medical practice earned him the fortune that he required to finance his genius as a collector. He attended many members of society and was physician to both Queen Anne and her successor, George I, as well as to George II. In 1716 he was created a baronet, the first physician to be so honoured.

    Yet it is not for his medicine that we remember him today but for his extraordinary commitment, throughout his long life, to the acquisition of perhaps the most remarkable collections of all time. His interests included vertebrates and non-vertebrates, insects, minerals, and fossils. He collected books and manuscripts, ethnography, antiquities from all over the globe, coins and medals, prints and paintings, and much else.

    But his most lasting memorial must be his herbarium, collected and classified in the years that immediately preceded the establishment by Linnaeus, whom Sloane met only late in life, of today's systematic and nomenclatural procedures. After his death in 1753, and under the terms of his carefully crafted will, his collections formed the basis of what became the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, and, with other contributions, the British Library. It was a venture embarked on by the House of Commons with the aid of a national lottery.

    Sir Hans Sloane is a brilliant book, beautifully presented and printed and with an excellent index. It represents, as the director of the British Museum points out, the first comprehensive assessment of Sloane's widespread collecting activities and seeks to identify those items from his collections that are preserved to this day in the institutions that he founded. It was a formidable undertaking. There are eighteen essays dealing with the wide variety of Sir Hans's interests, including an admirable introductory chapter on the “Life, character and career of Sir Hans Sloane.” There are accounts of visits to Sloane's museum, then still in Bloomsbury, in 1710 and 1729, then, after the move to Chelsea, by others in 1748 including the Prince and Princess of Wales, who paid fulsome tribute to the aged collector.

    Sloane's remaining catalogues, in 31 folios carefully recorded by himself, are identified and listed. The authors of these chapters are distinguished keepers, curators, archivists, or academics who have been involved with Sloane's collections through many years so that they write with both authority and understanding. At times one can almost feel beneath one's fingers the dust of ancient cabinets and detect the characteristic aroma of their cherished contents. The contributions are excellent, as are the beautifully reproduced plates and other illustrations. Furthermore, each chapter has been extensively referenced, the notes forming an important background contribution to the text.

    This splendid volume is unquestionably the finest work of scholarship that has been published on Sir Hans Sloane and his work. It represents a superlative tribute to an extraordinary person who made so monumental a contribution to the intellectual and scientific life of Britain during this millennium.—CHRISTOPHER BOOTH, convenor, twentieth century history of medicine group, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London

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