The Sir Hans Sloane Birthday Collection: Giants’ Shoulders #70

Sir Hans Sloane, collector and physician, was born on 16 April 1660. To celebrate his 354th birthday, I’m hosting the history of science carnival: Giants’ Shoulders #70. Sloane collected stuff of all kinds, from curiosities (natural and man-made) and botanical samples to manuscripts. He was very thorough… So what does one give the man who had (nearly) everything for his birthday? The gift of knowledge! Hosting Giants’ Shoulders follows–in a small way—in the footsteps of Sloane, who edited the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for two decades.

Newspaper recipes pasted into a manuscript recipe book. Wellcome, WMS 7366, p. 78. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Newspaper recipes pasted into a manuscript recipe book.
Wellcome, WMS 7366, p. 78. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Being a physician was central to Sloane’s identity, so it’s fitting to start off with a round-up of history of medicine links. I must, of course, include a painful seventeenth-century medical case: that of “Samuel’s Stone-induced suffering”. Sloane, like many other eighteenth-century physicians, was no stranger to proprietary remedies; he even had his own special eye remedy. This month, we have “Proprietary Panaceas and Not-So-Secret Recipes”, “Newspaper Remedies and Commercial Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books” and “The Business of Medicine”. Sloane was particularly interested in finding useful remedies and would, no doubt, have approved of our modern interest in reviving old treatments or exploring non-Western ones (“Under the Influence”). He was equally intrigued by indigenous knowledge (as was “A Pirate Surgeon in Panama) and older popular treatments (as was Thomas Scattergood in the early nineteenth century, here and here).

As President of the Royal College of Physicians from 1719, Sloane also would have been familiar with medical disputes and prosecutions against irregular practitioners, such as “Master Docturdo and Fartado: Libellous Doctors in Early Modern Britain”. A post on “The Return of Nicholas Culpeper” finds the traces of Culpeper’s career around London. I’ve often wondered whether Sloane would simply have seen Culpeper as an irregular practitioner, or appreciated what they had in common–botanical interests and willingness to treat the poor.

Photograph of a telescope that belonged to Caroline Herschel. Image Credit: Geni, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of a telescope that belonged to Caroline Herschel. Image Credit: Geni, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

A driving factor in Sloane’s career was his insatiable curiosity. A teacher tells us why the history of science “is essential to engage students”, while “Hydra meets Handel” shows children participating in early modern science by gathering “duck pond detritus”. Sloane also encouraged curiosity in others, including women; for only two examples, he exchanged letters and botanical samples with the Duchess of Beaufort and Cassandra Willughby. There were lots of early modern women who practiced science—and this month, there were posts on Margaret Cavendish, Emilie du Chatelet and Caroline Herschel. Women could also be important patrons of science, such as Angela Burdett-Coutts. (Sloane certainly benefited from the patronage of women early in his medical career, particularly that of the Duchess of Albemarle.)

In his botanical research, Sloane catalogued and classified his specimens. Language was increasingly important in describing experiments and specimens, and was being developed and refined out of necessity. Robert Hooke, for example, coined sixty-eight words including (my favourites) “splatch” and “punk”. Over at Evolving Thoughts, a series on speciation outlines the origins of “speciation”, Linneaus’ contribution and late eighteenth-century developments. There are lots of posts this month about curiosities that might have appealed to Sloane, which I’ve divided into man-made and beautiful objects. Under man-made (and sometimes horrifying) objects, we have Holler’s copper plate, Dead Men’s Teeth (a.k.a. dentures), a Time-Traveling, Vote-Gathering Miraculous Acousticon, Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway and the plutonium box. Under beautiful objects, we have the Salagrama Stones, the Vessels of Hermes, a triangular book about alchemy, Nathaniel Wallich’s specimens, and a colourful atlas.

T. Rowlandson, 1787. A fashionable dentist's practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

T. Rowlandson, 1787. A fashionable dentist’s practice: healthy teeth are being extracted from poor children to create dentures for the wealthy. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of the reasons that Sloane was so well-known for his botanical expertise is that he had actually travelled to Jamaica early in his career, gathered local knowledge and tried out local remedies. On behalf of the Royal Society, he also requested that some explorers bring back specific items or look into particular issues. In 1700, Edmond Halley returned to St. Helena and reported on the area. Halley’s travel descriptions weren’t intended for the Royal Society, but his travels would certainly have been of interest. Explorers have also been the mappers of new and old areas. There is a series of posts on “A Concise History of Geological Maps”, which highlights the many uses of mapping beyond the geographical (2, 3 and 4). The newest areas are sometimes very far away, such as Martian canals or the centre of the Earth. Getting to some places might have been impossible in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though astronomical photography might help to span the distance. But in the end, the question remains: we can take humans out of their usual lands, but can we take the terrestriality out of the humans?

Experimentation, itself a way of exploring the universe, became increasingly important from the early eighteenth century. This month, I read about Isaac Newton’s experiments as instances of special power, the most famous failed science experiment, the lack of religious barriers to the practice of early modern science, experimental self-asphyxiation and experimental embryology in China. The secrets of the universe, however, are often invisible to the naked eye—perhaps more so than early eighteenth-century people even would have guessed. What about trying to study “the unfashionable ether”, magnetism and light rays, quantum physics… or medieval multiverses and modern cosmic conundrums? And that’s before we even get to time! Sloane would have been familiar with the attempts to measure time and longitude, but less so the pervasiveness of modern standardised time, the ancient methods of measuring the movements of the sun or a twentieth-century physicist’s obsession with time and existence.

Sloane would have been no stranger to scientific disputes (especially since he sometimes played mediator). Recently, there has been much lively discussion among historians of scientists about the T.V. series Cosmos. By and large, historians of science have been highly critical of the choices made: the focus on Giordano Bruno, the inaccuracies in the story of Bruno, frustrating omissions and outright misrepresentations. Other historians were a bit more sympathetic, with suggestions that historians of science need to tell more compelling stories and that we need to provide better alternatives to the Cosmos style of history.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Kunsthistoriches Museum.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Kunsthistoriches Museum.

To end the Sloane birthday edition, I offer some book reviews. Sloane, of course, was constantly adding to his library, as do most historians. You might be interested in acquiring Everyday Renaissance Astrology, The Book of Trees, Ice Time (especially for those of us suffering from this never-ending winter in North America), or Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.

Happy reading! See you next month over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, where Thony Christie will be hosting Giants’ Shoulders #71. His contact details are here, if you want to start sending in nominations for May.

The Problems of an Eighteenth-Century Menagerie

One of my favourite letters in the Sloane Correspondence is a complaint from Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond (ca. 1729-1733).


I received your letter I am obliged to you
for it. I wish indeed it had been the sloath that
had been sent me, for that is the most curious
animal I know; butt this is nothing butt a
comon young black bear, which I do not know what
to do with, for I have five of them already. so pray
when you write to him, I beg you would tell
him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards,
or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.

I am Dear Sir,
Your Faithfull
humble servant

(BL Sloane 4078, f. 66)

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richmond established a well-known menagerie at Goodwood House, Sussex–though it was less famous than his son’s, which included more than one funny-looking Canadian moose. (If you’re interested in the Richmond family’s moose, as immortalized by artist George Stubbs, see Lisa Vargo’s article!)

The Richmond menagerie was by no means unique in Georgian England; the ability to import creatures from across the world expanded rapidly alongside British imperial ambition. Most famous, of course, was the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, which had been around since the thirteenth century and lasted until the 1830s. But across the country, aristocrats kept a wide array of exotic birds and animals by the eighteenth century. For the wealthy, such animal collections revealed their wealth, imperial connections and interests in natural history.

Hans Sloane himself collected living (and dead animals) while he lived in Bloomsbury, as Arnold Hunt reveals over at Untold Lives. As early as 1697, Sloane’s animals were attracting attention. Edward Tyson wrote to Sloane in February after hearing that Sloane’s possum had died. Tyson planned to dissect the animal the next day and wondered if Sloane would join him. In particular, he hoped that Sloane would do some research into what authors had written about possum anatomy. That Sloane’s collection was as likely to include weird pigs and cats as exotic beasts, suggests that his primary interest was to understand and to classify the natural world.

The fascination with strange beasts extended throughout society,  with touring menageries able to attract large audiences. In Man and the Natural World (1983), Keith Thomas recounts a sad case of an elephant that died in 1720 after being exhibited in London, likely made ill by the spectators giving the elephant too much ale to drink. The keepers of travelling menageries, no doubt, were primarily driven by profit. The public interest in the menageries highlights both people’s desire to be entertained and a real curiosity in the natural world beyond Britain.

What of the Duke of Richmond’s motivations for establishing a menagerie, then? The Duke of Richmond’s letter tells us that he was a discerning collector. After acquiring a basic range of powerful creatures that represented the many parts of the globe, Richmond now wanted the more unusual animals. A sloth, for example, would be ideal, being “the most curious creature I know”.  Curiosity was clearly a driving factor for him.

The letter leaves me to wonder what the Duke did with his surplus bears (…and eagles, leopards and tigers), especially given the recent culls at Copenhagen Zoo. Richmond’s description of being “overstock’d” might actually indicate that he kept the animals around. His collection, then, was also about acquisition: six bears might be a bit much, but some duplication was no bad thing. Despite his disappointment in Bear No. 6, the Duke may also have had affection for his unusual pets—shortly before his own death, he had a beloved lioness commemorated in statue-form!

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Collecting animals was not an easy task. A collector might have money and connections, as Richmond did, but that didn’t guarantee that the most-desired animals would arrive. For the Duke’s sake, I hope that the mysterious “he” mentioned in the letter did manage to send back a sloth—because, really, who wouldn’t be charmed by this smiley fellow (or 200 of them)?

This summer, Goodwood House will be holding an exhibition on the Richmond family’s natural history collections.