Sir Hans Sloane

A physician by trade, Sir Hans Sloane was also a collector of objects from around the world. By his death in 1753 he had collected over 71,000 items. Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will and it became the founding collection of the British Museum.


Sloane the physician

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) was born in Killyleagh, Ulster, in the North of Ireland, in relatively modest circumstances as the third son of migrants from Ayrshire in Scotland. Inspired by a childhood interest in natural history, and his Protestant upbringing, he studied medicine and botany in London, Paris and Montpellier, taking his MD from Orange.

In 1689, Sloane set up a successful medical practice at his home in No. 3 Bloomsbury Place in London – coincidentally just along the street from the present Museum building. He had a number of wealthy and aristocratic patients, among them Queen Anne and Kings George I and II.

An innovative doctor, Sloane promoted inoculation against smallpox, the use of quinine (a treatment for malaria) and the health-giving properties of drinking chocolate mixed with milk.

He became President of the College of Physicians in 1719 and in 1727 succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society, although he had played a leading role in the society since 1693, when as Secretary, he revived and expanded its Philosophical Transactions.

An engraving of Sir Hans Sloane

Sloane the collector

Sloane’s career as a collector really began in 1687 when he sailed for Jamaica as physician to the colony’s new Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. Sloane worked as a doctor on slave plantations and, with assistance from both English planters and enslaved West Africans – Akan men and women mainly from present-day Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire – assembled a collection of 800 plant specimens, as well as animals and curiosities. These would form the basis for his encyclopaedic work of natural history, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725). On returning from the Caribbean, Sloane married Elizabeth Langley Rose, heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica, profits from which contributed substantially to his ability to collect in the ensuing years, in addition to his medical income.

Sloane built up his vast collections in the decades after Jamaica through two principal means. He absorbed complete collections made by others, often friends such as William Charlton (Courten) (1642–1702) and James Petiver (d.1718). And he bought numerous natural and artificial curiosities from travellers and colonial settlers around the expanding British Empire, ranging from North America and the West Indies to South and East Asia.

As a result, Sloane’s collections outgrew the house at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place and he purchased No. 4 as well. They were visited by many people during his lifetime, mainly scholars and dignitaries, among them was the composer Handel who is said to have outraged his host by placing a buttered muffin on one of his manuscripts.

In 1742, Sloane moved with his collections to the manor house in Chelsea (the former residence of King Henry VIII, on what became Cheyne Walk), where he also became a significant landowner. His residence there is still commemorated by such place names as Sloane Square and Hans Crescent on land still owned by his descendants, the Cadogan family. Sloane died at the age of 92 in 1753 and was buried at Chelsea Old Church. Among his many natural specimens and artificial curiosities, his collection included:

  • 32,000 coins and medals
  • 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts (now in the British Library)
  • a herbarium of 334 volumes of dried plants) from around the world (now in the Natural History Museum)
  • 1,125 'things relating to the customs of ancient times'
Hans Sloane's specimen tray © 2003 The Natural History Museum

Foundation of the British Museum

In his will, Sloane bequeathed his entire collection to King George II for the nation in return for the payment of £20,000 to his heirs, and on condition that Parliament create a new and freely accessible public museum to house it.

Parliament accepted Sloane’s terms, raising the money through a national lottery and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament establishing the British Museum received the royal assent. Sloane’s collections, together with several additional libraries and collections, thus became the foundation of the British Museum.

Research Projects on Sloane in the Museum

Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogues of his collection
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/enlightenment_architectures.aspx
https://reconstructingsloane.org/enlightenmentarchitectures/

Sloane’s Treasures: an AHRC networking grant
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/sloanes_treasures.aspx

AHRC Funded Group Collaborative Doctoral Awards
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/sloanes_treasures/project_developments.aspx

Reconstructing Sloane: a consortium of curators from the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum
https://reconstructingsloane.org/

Further reading

James Delbourgo, Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane (London, 2017)
Michael Hunter, Arthur MacGregor and Alison Walker (eds), From Books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and His Collections (London, 2012)
Kim Sloan (ed), Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London, 2003)
Arthur MacGregor (ed), Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, scientist, antiquary (London, 1994)
E St John Brooks, Sir Hans Sloane: The Great Collector and his Circle (London, 1954)
Gavin R de Beer, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum (London, 1953)

An early British Museum admission ticket

Images from top:

  • Sir Hans Sloane, an engraving from a portrait by T. Murray
  • Sir Hans Sloane's specimen tray © The Natural History Museum
  • Admission ticket to the British Museum, 3 March AD 1790