Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 11 December 2023

Sloane, Sir Hans, baronetfree


Sloane, Sir Hans, baronetfree

  • Arthur MacGregor

Sir Hans Sloane, baronet (1660–1753)

by Stephen Slaughter, 1736

Sloane, Sir Hans, baronet (1660–1753), physician and collector, was born at Killyleagh, co. Down, on 16 April 1660, the seventh son of Alexander Sloane (d. 1666). His father, a protestant, was by profession agent for James Hamilton, second Viscount Claneboye and later earl of Clanbrassill; he was subsequently receiver-general of taxes for co. Down. Hans's mother, Sarah Hicks, came to Ireland in the company of Anne Carey, daughter of the earl of Monmouth, who later married James Hamilton. Much of what is known of Sloane's childhood and parentage derives from a brief pedigree in the College of Arms and from a memoir by Thomas Birch, now in the British Library (Add. MS 4241). From these we learn that Hans 'was descended of a Family originally of Scotland, but settled in the North of Ireland upon the new Plantation of that Part of the Kingdom in the Reign of King James I'.

Early years and medical training

So far as is known Sloane's schooling took place in Killyleagh, where he developed a 'strong Inclination to the study of the Works of Nature'. At the age of sixteen he developed a pulmonary affliction that took three years to subdue and which, despite a prudent regime, was to leave him periodically spitting blood for the remainder of his life.

By the age of nineteen he had recovered sufficiently to further his education in London. There he lodged in a house in Water Lane, adjacent to the Apothecaries' Hall where he studied chemistry. His lodgings were shared by Nicholas Staphorst, the Apothecaries' 'chemical operator', with whom Sloane acquired 'a perfect Knowledge of the Preparations and Uses of most chemical Medicines'. Lectures in anatomy and physic complemented this training, along with botanical studies at the physic garden in Chelsea.

During this time he also came under the influence of two older contemporaries who were to remain his firm friends for the remainder of their lives, John Ray and Robert Boyle. There seems little doubt that the acquaintance of these two scholarly figures and their circle produced a powerful formative influence on the development of Sloane's interests.

After four years of formal education in medicine Sloane journeyed to Paris, where for some three months he followed an intensive regime 'which afforded him full Employment for the Day', sharing his time between the Jardin Royal des Plantes and the Hôpital de la Charité: Birch records that Sloane was 'assiduous in his Attendance' upon all the Professors, 'by whom he was treated with great Respect as likewise by those of the Royal College & others eminent for their Skill in Physic, Natural History, or Philosophy'. Of his tutors, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort was perhaps to have the most lasting influence.

When the time came for Sloane to take his doctorate, his protestant faith dictated that he should do so at the University of Orange. There, on 27 July 1683, the oral examination was begun and on the following morning was completed; forthwith the university conferred on him the degree of doctor of physic.

Sloane now attended the University of Montpellier. He went there with a recommendation from Tournefort to Pierre Chirac, 'the chief Professor, to whose lectures & those of the other Professors there, he was admitted without any Fee or Reward, & became particularly acquainted with Monsr Magnol the Botanist, whom he accompanied in his herborisations round that City'. There he further studied anatomy, medicine, and botany. Both Tournefort and Pierre Magnol were avid searchers for new species and both were to devise new classificatory schemes; close acquaintance with them undoubtedly had a lasting effect on Sloane's own development. Sloane extended his stay in Montpellier until the following summer when, on 23 May 1684, he set out again for London 'with a Resolution to fix himself there for the Exercise of his Profession'.

On returning to England, Sloane entered into 'the greatest Intimacy of Friendship' with Thomas Sydenham and was

desir'd by him to settle in his Neighbourhood, that he might introduce him into practice … recommending him in the strongest terms to his Patients, when he was disabled by the Gout from attending them himself, & carrying him to them, when he was able.

Sydenham's skills were quickly communicated to the receptive Sloane, who was soon established to the point where, on 12 April 1687, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

Travels with the duke of Albemarle

At the same time Sloane received a tempting proposition to join the household of Christopher Monck, second duke of Albemarle, newly appointed governor of Jamaica, as the duke's personal physician. Sloane saw here an opportunity not only to serve his prestigious master and his family but also 'to see what I can meet withal that is extraordinary in nature in those places', acknowledging too that the voyage 'seem'd likewise to promise to be useful to me, as a Physician; many of the Antient and best Physicians having travell'd to the Places whence their Drugs were brought, to inform themselves concerning them' (Sloane, Voyage, preface). Ray and another friend, Martin Lister, were particularly encouraging, setting out a number of questions which Sloane might answer on the spot and further desiring him to 'collect & transmitte hither' specimens of all kinds (MacGregor, Natural history correspondence, 80). On 12 September 1687 the ducal party set sail from Spithead, proceeding via Madeira and the Canaries; by 25 November they had made land at Bridgetown, Barbados, eventually reaching Jamaica on 19 December 1687.

During the following fifteen months Sloane reports that he took pains 'to search the several Places I could think afforded Natural Productions, and immediately described them in a Journal'. He made notes on the weather, the topography, natural phenomena such as earthquakes, but above all on the flora, penetrating to the north of the island collecting, noting, and recording. Within a year, however, this absorbing activity was interrupted by the death on 6 October 1688 of the duke of Albemarle. Sloane's last duty to his patron was to embalm his body for shipment to England; the upheavals then surrounding the English throne delayed the departure of the dead duke and his household for a further five months, but on 16 March 1689 they sailed for home. Sloane's baggage was swelled by many scientific trophies: his plant collection alone amounted to 800 specimens, 'most whereof were New' (Sloane, Voyage, preface).

Marriage and publication of his West Indian research

After returning to London on 29 May 1689 Sloane remained for nearly four years in the service of the duchess of Albemarle before setting up in practice in Bloomsbury. There, on 11 May 1695, he married Elizabeth (d. 1724), daughter and coheir of John Langley, a London alderman, and widow of Fulke Rose (1644–1694?), a medical doctor, early colonist of Jamaica, and sugar plantation owner, who had been one of the principal purchasers of enslaved people on the island. The marriage was an advantageous one for Sloane, since his wife inherited not only her father's estate but also one third of the income from her former husband's properties in Jamaica. The newly married couple set up house in what later became 3 Bloomsbury Place, then at the centre of a fashionable residential area. There Sloane established his immensely successful practice, his patients including many of the most prestigious figures of the day.

In the years that followed Sloane began to publish his observations from the West Indies. At first they were submitted to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. There papers by him appeared on species such as coffee and the Jamaican pepper tree, and on the earthquakes that devastated Lima and struck Jamaica in 1687–8 and were felt in Jamaica again in 1692. Six years after his return, in 1696, his Catalogus plantarum quae in insula Jamaica sponte proveniunt came to fruition, an octavo volume of 232 pages with a 43 page index, dedicated jointly to the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Its appearance had been long delayed while Sloane sought opinions and criticism among his friends, notably Ray, and consulted numerous printed authorities. Sloane placed great emphasis on these cross-references, stating that he had endeavoured

to find if any thing I had observ'd was taken Notice of by other Persons … I therefore looked into most Books of this Nature, and the greatest part of what I found is publish'd [in the Catalogus plantarum], which I think, for Synonymous Names of the Plants therein mentioned, is somewhat more Copious and exact than any other before it.

Sloane, Voyage, preface

The process of collation and rationalization alluded to here represents one of Sloane's most valuable contributions to the advancement of science. His readiness to subordinate his own independent discoveries to the prior claims of others was characteristic of him in a way that was unmatched among his contemporaries. The new volume rendered obsolete many of the clumsy synonyms that littered earlier literature and brought about an improvement in nomenclature that was to be superseded only by the system of Linnaeus. But its value was greater than this: in a letter to Edward Lhwyd, Ray described Sloane's work as 'a great treasure, he having very exactly described every species' (J. Ray to Edward Lhwyd, 15 May 1697, Gunther, 271).

A successful physician

On 2 November 1694 Sloane had been appointed physician in charge of Christ's Hospital, London, a post he held until 1730. With a generosity that was also characteristic of him, he returned his salary of £30 a year to the hospital on a regular basis for the relief of needy inmates. He was a supporter of the Royal College of Physicians' dispensary, where medicines could be obtained at cost price. He was always generous with his own money and liberal with medical advice to his friends and to those who were unable to pay, running a free surgery for the poor every morning. He later became a governor of, and financial donor to, most of London's hospitals, giving £100 to each of those with which he was associated.

In 1701 Sloane was awarded the degree of doctor of medicine by the University of Oxford and in 1705 was elected to the College of Physicians of Edinburgh. In 1719, at the age of fifty-nine, he was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians in London, which office he held for sixteen years.

Further recognition of his medical prowess came in 1712 with an appointment as physician-extraordinary to Queen Anne. In 1714 he attended the queen in her final illness. De Beer draws attention to the crucial significance of Sloane's role in prolonging the queen's life to the point where the succession of the protestant George I could be ensured, so thwarting Jacobite aspirations to regain the throne. Under George I, Sloane continued to serve as a physician-extraordinary and on 3 April 1716, shortly after the king's accession, he was created a baronet—one of the first physicians to be so honoured. A court appointment followed in the succeeding reign when, in 1727, Sloane became physician-in-ordinary to George II, 'having been before constantly employ'd about the whole Royal Family, & always honour'd with the Esteem & favour of the Queen Consort'.

Estimates of Sloane's contributions to medicine are generally in line with those of his standing in the broader world of science. He was not a great innovator, but he was cautiously progressive and contributed to the establishment of scientific diagnosis and prescription, based on accurate observation rather than hypothesis. He was a keen promoter (against entrenched medical opinion) of the introduction and practice of inoculation in England, not fearing to apply it to his own family nor to advocate its administration to the children of the princess of Wales. He was never a slavish follower of established practice, and declared himself 'always very attentive to Matters of Fact' concerning the efficacy of cures (Oshlag, 1947). Sloane's name is further linked with the popularization of quinine, distilled from ‘Peruvian bark’: on returning from Jamaica he is said to have invested most of the fortune he acquired there in the bark, so securing a valuable stock of medicine which he actively promoted by prescription (for a range of complaints beyond those hitherto treated in this way) and by writing about it in the Philosophical Transactions. Further, he made a considerable amount of money from the promotion of milk chocolate—a commodity singularly in harmony with the regime of temperance that governed his life.

Publication of his Voyage to the Islands; links with the apothecaries

In parallel with these highly successful efforts to develop his medical practice Sloane worked towards the completion of the first volume of his major work, the Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, with the natural history … of the last of those islands. The first volume (dedicated to Queen Anne) was in due course brought out in 1707, though the scholarly world had to wait until 1725 for the appearance of the second volume (dedicated to George I). It is noteworthy like the earlier Catalogus for the pains that Sloane took to acknowledge the opinions of earlier scholars than himself. Furthermore, it is, as Birch acknowledges, 'written with an unaffected plainness and simplicity of Style most suited to the capacity of common Readers, & therefore likely to engage their Attention, & gratify their curiosity'. Critical acclaim was duly forthcoming, and not only in England: the Journal des Sçavans reviewed it warmly on 21 May 1708, despite the fact that Britain and France were then engaged in war. The first volume alone, concerned principally with plants, established Sloane's status unequivocally in the academic world. Many illustrations were engraved for it from drawings by Everhardus Kickius and Garrett Moore. The second volume included much more than plants—beasts, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, climate, disease, and trade are all considered. Sloane was able to use his own collection to draw comparisons with species of plants common to Jamaica and England, Spain, Portugal, Barbary, Guinea, and the East Indies.

Sloane's extensive pharmaceutical knowledge is alluded to in an account of a debate at the House of Lords of the Physicians' Bill on 14 April 1720, which he attended with other members of the Royal College of Physicians: when the apothecaries, who were also represented, attempted to insinuate that the physicians 'did not understand drugs', Sloane 'offered to contend with them, & sayd he would bring 500 drugs that all the Apothecarys in town should not know one of' (Family Memoirs, 1.74). None the less, the apothecaries remained indebted to him, for since his acquisition of the manor of Chelsea some years earlier, Sloane had become landlord of the physic garden there and in 1722 he entered into an agreement with the society by which, for an annual payment of £5, he conveyed the garden and all its appurtenances to them. The grateful society erected a full-length statue of their benefactor in the garden: the statue and its maquette, both by Rysbrack, were later placed in the British Museum.

Administration of the Royal Society

Scholarship was only one of several gifts with which Sloane was endowed and in any assessment of his worth his association with the administration of the Royal Society must merit primary importance. He was elected to the society as a young man of twenty-four on 21 January 1685 (proposed by Lister) and remained an active participant in its affairs for sixty-eight years. He seems to have been encouraged and positively moved by his admission to the Royal Society, as also by his election two years later to the Royal College of Physicians—'unmerited Favours', as he called them, which 'incited me to do what I could to be no useless Member, but to cast in my Mite towards the Advancement of Natural Knowledge … and by that means endeavour to deserve a Place amongst so many Great and Worthy Persons' (Sloane, Voyage, preface). In 1693 he was elected second secretary of the society and in 1695 was made first secretary. The appointment carried with it, in addition to a considerable burden of administrative duties, responsibility for publication of the Philosophical Transactions. Production of the Transactions had lapsed for a number of years before Sloane became involved and the society as a whole was at the time in a state of decline; he played a key role in revitalizing both, and there can be little doubt that the shouldering of these considerable responsibilities inhibited Sloane's own opportunities for further scientific work.

The appointment placed Sloane at the hub of the learned world. It is hard to conceive that a more appropriate person could have been found to occupy this position, for Sloane's wide circle of acquaintances, his assiduousness as a correspondent, and his easy relations with foreign scholars at a period when the continent was repeatedly riven by warfare helped maintain the Royal Society in a key strategic position within the European scholarly community. His extensive correspondence with the Abbé Bignon, master of the king's library in Paris and editor of the Journal des Sçavans, may be singled out as a particularly fruitful conduit through which the latest scientific ideas (and gossip) were transmitted across the channel. The fact that so many of the communications printed in the Philosophical Transactions at this time were in the nature of extended letters to the editor underlines the important role played by the editor as correspondent.

Sloane was not without his critics, however. One of the most vociferous was Dr John Woodward, who bore an undoubted enmity for Sloane, fuelled by more than a hint of jealousy, but his antipathy also had a genuine scholarly dimension to it. With some justification Woodward felt that the experimental and philosophical objectives of the Royal Society (as reflected in the papers published in the Transactions) were neglected or even undermined during Sloane's secretaryship; not only did Sloane lack the intellectual capacity to forward these pursuits but, in Woodward's opinion, he subverted the course of progress by forwarding the theories of his cronies at the expense of others (notably Woodward himself). Even more devastating in effect was an attack which came in the form of a parody on Sloane and the journal he edited, published anonymously in 1700 by William King, under the title of The Transactioneer. Although an official inquiry into its authorship was mounted by the council, King remained undiscovered.

Of as much importance from the society's point of view was Sloane's businesslike outlook, which resulted in many arrears of subscriptions being successfully claimed and in a striking improvement in the society's finances. He also encouraged donations to the ‘repository’ (the society's museum), which had enjoyed an enhanced degree of direction and purpose since responsibility for it had passed in 1677 to Nehemiah Grew. Sloane himself contributed enormously to the society's collections of plant specimens by including in his agreement with the apothecaries a proviso that the Chelsea Physic Garden should annually supply the Royal Society with fifty specimens of plants of different species, by which means more than 2000 specimens were received.

The president of the society from 1703 was Sir Isaac Newton. Although Sloane lacked the academic stature of Newton, he took on as secretary much of the responsibility for running the society, and when Newton died in 1727 Sloane seems to have been widely perceived as his natural successor in the office. On 29 March of that year the council unanimously voted him president. The membership at large was split in its loyalties (both personal and political), however, and at the annual general meeting on 30 November there was a lengthy debate before Sloane's election was confirmed by a three-to-one majority. He was to remain in office for fourteen years until, at the age of eighty-one, indifferent health caused him to stand down. An impression of the high esteem in which he was held can be gained from the reluctance of the membership to let him go. A medal struck in 1744 commemorates his distinguished presidency, as does the society's portrait by Kneller.

In the course of his term of office honours had come from other bodies. The French Académie Royale des Sciences appointed him correspondent in 1699 and foreign associate in 1709. He was elected to the foreign membership of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1712, to the academies of sciences of St Petersburg and Madrid in 1735, and to membership of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen in 1752, at the age of ninety-two.

Later years and death

Sloane's wife Elizabeth had died in 1724. Together they had four children, a son, Hans, who had died in infancy, and three daughters, of whom one, Mary, had also died an infant. Of the surviving daughters, Sarah married George Stanley of Paultons in Hampshire, while Elizabeth married Colonel Charles (later second Baron) Cadogan. Some memory of these dynastic links is preserved in many of the street names in the Sloane Square area of the Cadogan estate in Chelsea.

In 1739, aged seventy-nine, Sloane was smitten by a paralytic disorder from which he never fully recovered. Three years later, in 1742, he retired to Chelsea after a further serious illness. In 1752 Birch found him 'cheerfull and healthfull but … almost incapable of conversation from his Defects of hearing and speech'. He died on the afternoon of 11 January 1753 at the Manor House, Chelsea, and was buried on 18 January next to his wife in the south-east corner of the churchyard at Chelsea old church. Sloane was well loved by his friends such as Ray, Locke, and Pepys and certainly never went out of his way to make enemies, for he had none of the contentiousness characteristic of many of his contemporaries. Self-effacement seems to have been a prominent character trait: in the opening pages of his Voyage he had stated: 'I am sensible there are herein a great many faults, not only in Hypotheses or Opinions, which I propose only as Conjectures, and shall easily part with … [knowing] too well how unduly qualified I am for such an Undertaking'. These twin virtues of industry and modesty were further alluded to by William Stukeley in an assessment of Sloane that is otherwise critical enough as to be clearly unbiased:

Sr Hans Sloan is an instance of the great power of industry which can advance a man to a considerable height in the worlds esteem with moderate parts & learning … He has no faculty of speaking, either fluently or eloquently, especially before any number of people, & he do's it with great timidity. His most commendabl quality is his love for natural learning, & the pains he takes to promote it.

Bodl. Oxf., MS Eng. misc. e 260, fol. 101v


A further dimension to the esteem with which Sloane is remembered is provided by his collecting activities. The first elements of his collection were formed in the course of his youthful botanizing expeditions, while the Jamaican voyage resulted in a very substantial increase both in the size of the collection and in perceptions of its value. As early as 1691 John Evelyn gave a description of the collection that revealed its already considerable size as well as its diversity, describing it as 'an universal Collection of the natural productions of Jamaica consisting of Plants, [fruits,] Corralls, Minerals, [stones,] Earth, shells, animals, Insects, &c: collected by him with greate Judgement' (Evelyn, Diary, 5.48). Subsequent development of the collection depended largely on other ready-made museums which Sloane was able to incorporate into his own: of these the most important were those of William Courten, which he acquired on the latter's death; Leonard Plukenet, from whose herbarium Sloane acquired some 8000 specimens; and James Petiver, whose collection Sloane acquired in 1718.

In addition to these major acquisitions a number of smaller but historically important groups were added over the years. In the field of botany, for example, he bought Nehemiah Grew's collection of seeds and fruits; he also acquired collections of plants built up by Christopher Merret, Jakob Breyne of Danzig, James Cunninghame's Chinese plants, and others from the Philippines collected by Georg Joseph Kamel. Smaller numbers of specimens (including shells as well as plants) were contributed directly or indirectly by an array of famous personalities such as William Dampier.

Plants, shells, and other specimens again came to Sloane from the collection of Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716), who had spent two years in Japan as physician to the Dutch East India Company between 1690 and 1692. At no small cost Sloane acquired not only the specimens but also many of Kaempfer's papers, including the unpublished manuscript text for Kaempfer's 'History of Japan', the translation and subsequent publication of which were undertaken at Sloane's expense.

Sloane himself was a subscriber to certain plant hunting expeditions. In 1723 Mark Catesby sent plants, birds, and shells from Carolina to Sloane; eight years later, the first volume of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina was published with an acknowledgement to his 'curious Friends' to whom he had sent seeds, plants, corals, and so on, 'more particularly (as I had the greatest Obligations) to that great Naturallist and promoter of Science Sir Hans Sloane, Bart to whose goodness I attribute much of the Success I had in this Undertaking'.

Sloane's friends and acquaintances contributed smaller amounts of material. Ralph Thoresby and Richard Richardson both sent geological specimens from the coalpits in their native Yorkshire. Others came from the Revd John Morton and from Peter Collinson. Sir Charles Wager, first lord of the Admiralty, collected a variety of curiosities on his voyages (seemingly at the instigation of Collinson), some of which went to swell the Sloane collection. As it grew in size the collection began to present problems of accommodation, which Sloane solved by acquiring 4 Bloomsbury Place, the property adjacent to his own house, for the ever-expanding museum.

A particular virtue of Sloane's was his punctiliousness in compiling catalogues of every aspect of his collection and library. He has indeed been described as 'a pioneer cataloguer who perceived the need to document his collections in a systematic way' (Jones). In a striking self-analysis, Sloane wrote to the Abbé Bignon that 'the collection and accurate arrangement of these curiosities constituted my major contribution to the advancement of science' (Clarke).

Sloane was notably free with access to his specimens and was 'always ready, on proper Notice to admit the Curious to the sight of his Museum' (BL, Add. MS 4241). Neither was he reluctant, on the whole, to share the benefits of his collection with the learned community. He seems to have been motivated by a strong sense of public utility in forming and expanding the collection. Birch, whose notes are thought to have been compiled from direct conversations with Sloane, expressed it as follows:

It was not … a trifling or vain Inclination of merely getting together a great Number of uncommon things, that induc'd him to spend 50,000£ in purchasing the Rarities which every country produced. His constant Endeavour was to employ them to the best purposes, by making himself acquainted, as far as possible, with the Properties, Qualities, & Uses, either in Food, medicine, or manufacture of every Plant, Mineral, or Animal, that came into his possession. By which means he became one of the ablest Physicians of his Age and Country; & in this last Character he was so distinguish'd that for many years he had a Flow of Business which inabled him not only to lay out such vast Sums on his Collection, & to portion out his two Daughters to leave besides a Fortune behind him of [£]100,000.

BL, Add. MS 4241

Meanwhile, the museum became one of the sights of London for visiting connoisseurs and scientists, most notably Linnaeus, who came in August 1736 bearing a letter of introduction from Hermann Boerhaave. There seems to have been little meeting of minds between the two of them, communication being hindered by difficulties of language and a great difference in age (Linnaeus was twenty-nine at the time while Sloane was seventy-six, tending to deafness, and partly paralysed). The old man failed to respond to the innovative theories of the young Swede, published the previous year in his Systema naturae, while Linnaeus was evidently disappointed with Sloane's renowned plant collection, finding it 'in complete disorder' (Linnaeus to Olaus Celsius, Dandy, 11).

Sloane was by now in poor health and his medical practice much curtailed. In 1742, with his retirement from practice, the time had come for Sloane to transfer his household, including the collections, to the manor house at Chelsea. Stukeley paid Sloane a visit on 13 April 1743 and found that 'His great house at Chelsea is full throughout; every closet & chimney with books, raritys, &c' (Family Memoirs, 1.358). An account of the museum in its new setting was left by Linnaeus's pupil Per Kalm, who called on Sloane on his way to America in 1748, and in the same year the museum received the accolade of a visit from the prince and princess of Wales, duly recorded in the press. These descriptions provide some character to the lists of exhibits contained in his catalogues (MacGregor, Sir Hans Sloane).

Prudence and application, combined with a sober temperament, a philanthropic nature, and a sense of Christian virtue, marked every aspect of Sloane's career from beginning to end. The rather long and grave face alluded to in the earliest description of him, at the age of twenty-one, marks every known portrait of him in later life. There was to be no sequel in maturity corresponding to the youthful promise of his scientific fieldwork in Jamaica, but he earned in his own day almost universal respect for his able administration of the nation's foremost scientific and medical institutions. The richness of the collections he built up has also been acknowledged since that time, as witnessed by Stukeley:

Industry may be said to have raisd Sr. Hans, as Art did Radcliff, fortune Mead. Sr. Hans has had this piece of luck too, that being a vertuoso has made his fortune, which generally ruins others … The same industry has made him perfect master of the knowledg of his immense collection, begun by Mr. Charltons gift, carryd on by his own riches & pains & interest, & may be said to be the greatest that ever was a private mans possession.

Family Memoirs, 1.125–6

The Sloane bequest

In an effort to secure the continuing integrity of his collection Sloane drafted a carefully worded will, the first version of which, dated 9 October 1739, was reinforced by half a dozen codicils drawn up between 1746 and 1752 and published as The Will of Sir Hans Sloane in 1753. Originally three executors were charged to offer the collection for sale, first to the king, then the Royal Society, and then in turn to a number of bodies at home and abroad. Under a codicil of 10 July 1749 these administrative arrangements were transformed, with the appointment of forty-eight trustees acting under a supervisory body of visitors numbering a further thirty-seven persons of influence, acting privately or ex officio. In formulating these complex arrangements Sloane was motivated, in Birch's words, by 'the Desire next his Heart … that his collection might be kept together for the instruction and Benefit of others engaged in the same pursuits'. When George II proved indifferent to the offer the trustees decided instead to petition parliament with a view to securing the collection for the nation. A stipulation of the will was that a legacy of £20,000 for Sloane's two daughters had to be provided by whoever acquired it. With this in mind Sloane's former curator, James Empson, was summoned before parliament to give an estimate of its value which was, in his opinion, some £80,000 if not £100,000; whereupon the members were persuaded that 'it will be for the Honor and Advantage of this Country to accept of Sir Hans Sloane's Legacy' (MacGregor, Sir Hans Sloane, 49). As well as the museum collection, the legacy included Sloane's library of manuscripts and printed books; the manuscripts alone, rich in medieval and later tracts on natural science and medicine, collected letters and papers including Sloane's own voluminous correspondence, remain one of the great resources for scholarly research into eighteenth-century intellectual history, though as yet they lack both a definitive catalogue and all but the most partial of topical surveys.

Parliament further decided to purchase the manuscripts from the collection of the Harleys, first and second earls of Oxford, which were then on the market. With the Sloane and Harleian collections were to be combined the manuscripts left to the nation in 1700 by Sir Robert Cotton, all three to form the founding collection of the British Museum, established by act of parliament on 7 June 1753.


  • BL, Add. MS 4241 [memoir by Thomas Birch]
  • Coll. Arms, MS 3.D.14, pp. 85–6
  • G. R. de Beer, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum (1953)
  • E. St. J. Brooks, Sir Hans Sloane: the great collector and his circle (1954)
  • A. MacGregor, ed., Sir Hans Sloane: collector, scientist, antiquary, founding father of the British Museum (1994)
  • J. Britten and J. E. Dandy, eds., The Sloane herbarium (1958)
  • P. M. Jones, ‘A preliminary check-list of Sir Hans Sloane's catalogues’, British Library Journal, 14 (1988), 38–40
  • A. MacGregor, ‘The natural history correspondence of Sir Hans Sloane’, Archives of Natural History, 22 (1995), 79–90
  • J. Jacquot, ‘Sir Hans Sloane and French men of science’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 10 (1952–3), 85–98
  • J. A. Clarke, ‘Sir Hans Sloane and the Abbé Bignon: notes on collection building in the eighteenth century’, Library Quarterly, 50 (1980)
  • R. D. Lund, ‘“More strange than true”: Sir Hans Sloane, King's Transactioneer and the deformation of English prose’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 14 (1985), 213–30
  • I. B. Cohen, ‘Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane and the Académie Royale des Sciences’, L'aventure de la science, ed. A. Koyré (1964), 81–102
  • G. R. de Beer, ‘Relations between fellows of the Royal Society and the French men of science when France and Britain were at war’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 9 (1951–2), 244–99
  • C. G. Thomas, ‘Sir Hans Sloane and the Russian Academy of Sciences’, British Library Journal, 14 (1988), 21–4
  • J. A. Oshlag, ‘The ethical practices of Sir Hans Sloane’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 21 (1947), 918–21
  • M. Ultee, ‘Sir Hans Sloane, scientist’, British Library Journal, 14 (1988), 1–20
  • K. Dewhurst, ‘The correspondence between John Locke and Sir Hans Sloane’, British Journal of Medical Science, 6th ser., 143 (1960), 201–12
  • W. R. Sloan, ‘Sir Hans Sloane, FRS, legend and lineage’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 35 (1980), 125–9
  • R. W. T. Gunther, Further correspondence of John Ray (1928)
  • The family memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, ed. W. C. Lukis, 3 vols., SurtS, 73, 76, 80 (1882–7)
  • H. Sloane, A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, with the natural history … of the last of those islands, 2 vols. (1707–25)
  • H. Sloane, Catalogus plantarum quae in insula Jamaica sponte proveniunt (1696)
  • M. J. Crossley Evans, ‘The maternal ancestry of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), and the household of Ann Hamilton (c.1612–89), Countess of Clanbrassil’, Antiquaries Journal, 80 (2000), 302–8
  • The will of Sir Hans Sloane (1753)


  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MS 29470
  • Lincs. Arch., papers relating to Jamaica plantations and regarding marriage settlement
  • NHM, catalogues of natural history collections
  • RS, letters and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Richard Richardson
  • NHM, letters [copies; originals at RS, Linn. Soc., Wellcome L., and a library in Göttingen]
  • NHM, letters to Johann Jacob Scheuchzer [copies]


  • G. Kneller, oils, 1716, RS
  • T. Murray, oils, 1725, RCP Lond.
  • J. Faber junior, mezzotint, 1728 (after T. Murray), BM, NPG
  • J. Faber junior, mezzotint, 1729 (after G. Kneller), Wellcome L.
  • J. Richardson, oils, 1730, Examination Schools, Oxford
  • S. Slaughter, oils, 1736, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. M. Rysbrack, statue, 1737, Chelsea Physic Garden, London
  • Wray, line engraving, 1795 (after T. Murray), Wellcome L.
  • J. B. Bird, stipple (after S. Slaughter)
  • J. A. Dassier, medal, BM
  • attrib. G. Kneller, portrait, TCD
  • W. H. Lizars, line engraving (after T. Murray, 1722), Wellcome L.
  • J. M. Rysbrack, terracotta bust, BM
  • attrib. J. Vanderbank, oils, BM
  • line engraving (after G. Kneller, 1716), Wellcome L.

Wealth at Death

£100,000; plus value of collection (perhaps another £100,000): BL, Add. MS 4241 [memoir by Thomas Birch]

J. Delbourgo, ‘Slavery in the cabinet of curiosities: Hans Sloane's Atlantic world’ (2007),

will, TNA PROB 11/420 [Fulke Rose]

Page of
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Page of
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
British Museum, London
Page of
Surtees Society
Page of
Trinity College, Dublin
Page of
Royal College of Physicians of London
Page of
College of Arms, London
Page of
Royal Society, London
Page of
C. C. Gillispie & F. L. Holmes, eds., , 16 vols. (1970–80); repr. in 8 vols. (1981); 2 vol. suppl. (1990)
Page of
Lincolnshire Archives, Lincoln
Page of
British Library, London
Page of
Natural History Museum, London