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Museums: The life and times of a curiosity-monger

Henry Nicholls revels in a biography of Enlightenment collector and Royal Society president Hans Sloane.

Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane

Allen Lane: 2017 9780674737334 9781846146572. | ISBN: 978-0-6747-3733-4
Hans Sloane founded the British Museum. Credit:

What do bloodletting, slavery, journal editing and a silver penis protector have in common? The eighteenth-century physician, collector and president of the Royal Society Hans Sloane.

In Collecting the World, historian James Delbourgo charts Sloane's rags-to-riches transformation, from his birth in 1660 into a family of domestic servants in the north of Ireland, to his death in 1753 as one of the most influential figures in England. Sloane became medic to the rich and famous and used his personal wealth to amass the most celebrated cabinet of curiosities of the age.

Despite his celebrity in life, Sloane has managed to slip almost into obscurity: his name lives on mostly in a handful of street and place names, such as London's Sloane Square. And he remains a shadowy figure in Delbourgo's book. There is little about what he looked like, or about his family life — perhaps because his archives are full of letters to, rather than from, him. But Delbourgo sheds magnificent light on Sloane's larger world, providing great insight into the evolution of Britain's early scientific and global ambitions.

At the age of 16, Sloane survived a “violent haemorrhage”, a formative experience from which he emerged with intense ambition. Moving from Ulster to London in 1679 to study medicine, he developed a talent for self-advancement. He exploited the close-knit Anglo-Irish diaspora to cultivate a connection with chemist and fellow of the Royal Society Robert Boyle, and was introduced to philosopher John Locke, naturalist John Ray and physician Thomas Sydenham. Within a decade, Sloane had emerged as a prominent London doctor, and in 1687 he travelled to Jamaica as physician to the island's new governor, the Duke of Albemarle.

Sloane's timing couldn't have been better: he arrived as the island and its sugar plantations were beginning to assume a pivotal role in Britain's empire. Delbourgo does not shy away from the savagery of the slavery from which the colonists profited — violence and oppression that don't seem to have worried Sloane. Indeed, Sloane's description of public tortures and executions is “eerily dispassionate”.

When not attending the duke, plantation owners or their slaves, Sloane indulged his dream of universal knowledge. This resulted in his natural history of the region: a lavish folio published in two volumes (in 1707 and 1725), filled with hundreds of detailed, life-sized engravings of local plants, animals and curios. The work set a new standard for scientific illustration, from which botanists such as Carl Linnaeus would benefit. Sloane distributed copies like calling cards, spreading his work and fame.

There seems no limit to Sloane's curiosity, although he was scathing about witchcraft and magic, and paid special attention to anything that could be transformed into a commodity. Natural history, for him, was “a speculative exercise in scouring the globe for things that might seem odd or trivial ... but which could ultimately triumph in the discovery of prized new resources and goods”, writes Delbourgo. Sloane's account of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) is a perfect example of what Delbourgo calls “total commercial cataloguing”. The creatures were “reckon'd extraordinary food”; their cured flesh could last “without corruption ... never turning rancid”; the skeletons, ground to a powder, had medicinal properties; and the hides could be transformed into either fine shoes or “whips for beating slaves”.

After his return to London in 1689, Sloane married the widow of one of Jamaica's foremost slave owners and bought property in on-the-up Chelsea. In spite of his reliance on treatments such as “superpurgations”, he seems to have killed fewer patients than other doctors of his day, bringing him a huge income and the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1719.

As the editor of the Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions, he became “one of the pivotal information brokers in the Republic of Letters”. Not everything he published was palatable to learned society — including a second-hand report of a 68-year-old woman who had breastfed her grandchildren. Such “vulgar wondermongering”, notes Delbourgo, led some to view him as gullible and guilty of distasteful self-promotion: Isaac Newton is said to have described Sloane as “a villain and rascal” and “a very tricking fellow”. This didn't stop Sloane from succeeding Newton as president of the Royal Society in 1727. “With exemplary sociability, redoubtable shrewdness and unflappable patience, he had installed himself at the centre of British society,” writes Delbourgo.

As Sloane's star rose, he found it easier to access objects and anecdotes for his personal museum. With immense skill, Delbourgo mines Sloane's vast correspondence to uncover the global networks on which he relied to accumulate miscellanea. The number, variety and curious nature of these objects is enthralling; they include blocks of rock from the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, an arrow-shooter from Indonesia and that silver penis protector, from Panama. Sloane catalogued these and thousands of other books, coins, precious stones, animals and oddities.

In his will, he drew up a guest list for his own funeral, and offered his collection to the nation, presumably as part of his “personal desire for immortality”, as Delbourgo puts it. In this mission, he seems to have failed: his name is today rarely linked to the British Museum, the British Library or the Natural History Museum, although all were founded from his collections. “Sloane is nowhere because he was everywhere,” suggests Delbourgo.

Sloane's character doesn't lend itself to modern fame: his purging medicine and “hopelessly eclectic” brand of natural history are hard to fathom, and his collections have been buried in later acquisitions. In Collecting the World, Delbourgo brings brilliant resolution to the life and extraordinary times of a fascinating enigma.

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Correspondence to Henry Nicholls.

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Natural History Museum Sloane Collection

Natural History Museum Sloane Herbarium

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British Library: Sloane Printed Books

James Delbourgo

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Nicholls, H. Museums: The life and times of a curiosity-monger. Nature 545, 410–411 (2017).

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