Sir Hans Sloane, the Founder of the British Museum, accumulated a large number of fossilised remains of animals and plants throughout his life. His collection, including curiosities from all around the known world, was acquired by the British Government in 1753 as part of Sloane’s bequest to the nation. It formed the core of the fossil collection of the Department of Natural History in the British Museum, and is now conserved in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum in London.
Hans Sloane (16 April 1660 – 11 January 1753)
Hans Sloane was born on 16 April 1660 at 49 Frederick Street in Killyleagh, County Down in Ireland, although he was of Scottish ancestry.
From a young age, Sloane showed an inclination for the study of natural history and medicine, collecting specimens from nearby Strangford Lough and as far afield as the Copeland Islands. He began studying medicine in 1679 in London, and finished his training in Paris and Montpellier in France, receiving his doctor of medicine degree at the University of Orange in France, on 28 July 1683. During this time, he was a frequent visitor to the Chelsea Physic Garden, established in 1673 by the Company of Apothecaries, as botany was considered to be fundamental to the medical curriculum. On his return to London, Sloane was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society on 21 January 1685, and a Fellow of the College of Physicians on 12 April 1687. In 1694, he became physician to Christ’s Hospital. His reputation as a physician was such that the University of Oxford awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1701, to be followed by his election as a member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1705, and his appointment as Physician General to the Army in 1716, the year in which he was named Baronet by King George I. Later, he was elected President of the College of Physicians (1719) and chosen as President of the Royal Society, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton in 1727. He held these posts until 1735 and 1741, respectively. Although Sloane served as a physician to Queen Anne and was very much a member of the aristocracy, he also gave his services to the poor for free, and supported the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in 1739.
In 1695, Sloane married Elizabeth Langley (1662–1724), heiress of a wealthy city alderman, and widow of Fulke Rose, a sugar planter in Jamaica. They had a son, who died at a very young age, and three daughters. They set up house in Great Russell Street in London, where Sloane started to accumulate his collections, which initially came mainly from a trip that he undertook to Jamaica, involving three months of travel and 15 months on the island, where he collected 800 plants and numerous live animals that did not survive.
While in Jamaica, he searched for new plants that could be used as food and discovered a drink already used by natives and Spaniards made from cocoa beans. He decided to mix the beans with milk and sugar and introduced it to England as drinking chocolate. Later he would sell this recipe for chocolate to the Cadbury brothers. His interests also included the Peruvian bark or quinine (used as a fever treatment), investing most of his salary in its purchase for later sale in London. He returned to London on 29 May 1689. Sloane’s trip to Jamaica inspired him to write a pioneering catalogue of the plants of Jamaica, which was published in 1696, and a two-volume book, the Natural History of Jamaica, the first volume of which was published in 1707 and the second in 1725.
Sloanes’s collections were the object of interest not only for British scholars and scientists, but also to all manner of distinguished visitors from Britain and abroad. They were displayed in his house with the exceptions of some “Rarities” that Sloane donated particularly to one of his former servants, Don Saltero. Saltero ran a coffee-house in Chelsea, where he exhibited this donation alongside other specimens to attract members of the public, following a contemporary trend for joining coffee-houses and museums because of their entertainment value.
Sloane retired in 1741, becoming confined to his mansion in Chelsea due to deteriorating health, which forced him to use a wheelchair until his death on 11 January 1753 at the age of 92. He was buried at Chelsea Old Church.
Sloane was survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Cadogan and Sarah Stanley, and bequeathed his collection to the public on the condition that his daughters would receive £20,000 (equivalent to £3.6 million today). This was less than the estimated value of some parts of his collections, for example, the silver and gold medals and gems that had a value of at least £50,000. When Sarah died, Elizabeth Cadogan inherited Sarah’s part, and the huge fortune and lands still remain with the Cadogan family.
Sloane’s collections, including also his library, formed the nucleus of the British Museum, founded in 1753 and opened to the public as the first national secular museum on 15 January 1759 at Montagu House in Great Russell Street. The present building in Great Russell Street, designed by Sir Robert Smirk, was built between 1823 and 1852 on the site of Montagu House and a statue of Sloane is displayed at the Museum entrance. Not only was he a very influential figure for this time in science, but numerous London streets bear his name (for example Sloane Street, Sloane Square, Hans Crescent and Hans Street).
Sloane’s fossil specimens were moved in 1881 to the South Kensington site of the new British Museum (Natural History), along with the other natural history specimens.
Hans Sloane’s fossil collections at the Natural History Museum
Among Sloane’s natural history specimens now located in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum are about 150 fossils and other geological samples. This number represents a drastic reduction from the at least 15,250 geological specimens in the original collection that included 4,000 fossil vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. Some of Sloane’s specimens were disposed of at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as they lacked associated scientific information or were considered to be inferior duplicates of other specimens. The 110 fossils remaining were the object of a study initiated in 2010 to mark the 350th birthday of Sloane.
One of Sloane’s main interests was palaeontology. This is clear in his letters to Abbe Jean Paul Bignon (1662–1743), master of the King’s Library in Paris, paying attention to the fossil bones of ‘prehistoric elephants’ and the ‘anatomy of rattlesnakes’.
Sloane generally referred to his fossils as petrified remains of once living animals and plants. Exceptions were fossil sharks’ teeth and belemnites. The former are often referred to as ‘glossopetra’ (tongue stones) in Sloane’s catalogues, alluding to the belief that these fossils were serpents’ tongues petrified by Saint Paul after being shipwrecked on Malta. In the case of the belemnites, Sloane followed the belief of most of his contemporaries that they were inorganic minerals and not the fossilised internal shells of extinct squid-like animals we know them to be today.
The Sloane Collection of fossils includes, from the highest proportion to the least, molluscs (27% bivalves, 19% gastropods and 7% cephalopods), fishes (10% chondrichthians and 5% actinopterygiians), echinoderms (11% echinoids and 1% crinoids), brachiopods (10%), cnidarians (5%), mammals (2%), reptilians (2%) and crustaceans (1%).
One-third of Sloane’s fossils lack provenance, with the localities and stratigraphy unknown. Among those with recorded provenance, most come from the UK, Russia, Switzerland, Germany and Malta. Stratigraphically, there are specimens from the Late Palaeozoic of Germany, the Mesozoic of Europe and the Cainozoic worldwide, including Jamaica.
Important fossils to highlight in the Sloane Collection are a stingray tooth from Maryland, USA described and figured by Sloane in Vol. 19 (1695–1697) of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and the molar tooth of a mammoth from Siberia. The ray tooth was found by the English physician, Sir Tancred Robinson (c. 1658–1748), and sent to Sloane, who recognised it as a tooth very similar to those he saw in living rays during his visit to Jamaica.
The mammoth tooth is one of the first remains of a mammoth ever collected in Siberia. In the seventeenth century, Europeans started to explore Siberia, discovering mammoths and initiating research on these giant extinct mammals. The first frozen mammoth sent to Europe was found by Dr Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt (1685–1735), a German physician, naturalist and geographer appointed by Tsar Peter the Great in 1718 to explore Siberia in a campaign that lasted from 1722 until 1728. Some of the specimens collected by Messerschmidt were published by the German botanist, palaeontologist and entomologist, Johann Philipp Breyne (1680–1764). It seems that a mammoth molar now in the collections of the NHM had been figured and described by Breyne in his Observations on the Mammoth’s bones and teeth found in Siberia in 1737. This specimen, now in two pieces, matches with Breyne’s description. It has a weight of 8 lbs 3 ozs and is 6 inches long and 3 inches thick, as Breyne stated. Sloane’s catalogue records it in this way: “Dens molaris petrificarus animalis Mammalodicti in siberis sub terra repertus, ex armentario Domini Witsen. Segvelt p.37 Theca 17 nr 15”. Sloane evidently bought it at an auction from Johan van Segvelt (d. 1737), Director of the Dutch West India Company. According to the auction catalogue, Segvelt obtained it from the cabinet of curiosities of Nicholaes Corneliszoon Witsen (1641–1717), a Dutch traveller, geographer, maritime writer and diplomat, who collected numerous objects, including some during his travels to Russia in 1664 and 1665. He first introduced the name mammoth to Western Europe in 1694. He wrote: “By the inlanders these teeth are called mammouttekoos, while the animal itself is called mamout” (kost is the Russian word for bone). Witsen was also probably the first person to study frozen mammoth flesh – he wrote in his work of 1695, Noord en Oost Tartarye, that he saw the dark brown, smelly remains of an immense Siberian creature called the mammout.
While Sloane was correct in recognising the mammoth remains as coming from a relative of modern elephants, he assumed that Siberia once had a tropical climate and its elephants disappeared during the Biblical Flood.
Regardless of the source of the mammoth molar from either Messerschmidt or Witsen, this specimen is one of the first mammoth teeth from Siberia to have reached Europe. The number of plates in the tooth indicates that it belongs to Mammuthus primigenius, a woollen mammoth species that is rare in Siberia. Therefore, the specimen is of considerable scientific as well as historical significance.
Also of scientific value are some Sloane fossils that were subsequently made type specimens of new species, such as a tortoise shell (Testudo sloanei Lydekker, 1889) from Turkey, and a fragment of coral (Ebrayia dightonthomasi Roniewicz, 1970) from Wiltshire.
Other specimens in this collection were published by Sloane’s contemporaries, such as Dr Robert Plot (1640–1696) and Dr Martin Lister (1639–1712). Plot published his Natural History of Oxfordshire in 1677, which figured some of Sloane’s specimens: Echinocorys scutatus in the tab 3, figs 1–2; Clypeus plotii in tab 2, figs 9–10; and “Pecten” vagans in the tab 4, figs 12–13. Lister, in his Historiae Conchyliorum of 1685, also figured Sloane specimens: “Buccinum brevirostrum” in tab. mut 958; “Buccinites cinereus” in tab.1029 nr 9 mut; and probably “Trochus lapideus” in tab 1027.
The Welsh naturalist, Edward Lhwyd (1660–1709), published in his Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia (1699) echinoids from the chalk pits near Greenwich (p.46: 951 & Tab.12: “Echinites galeatus vulgaris“; and p. 47: 964 & Tab. 12: “Echinites cordatus vulgaris”) and molluscs from Basies Leigh in Berkshire.
The Swiss physician, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), also published in his Specimen lithographiæ Helveticæ curiosæ in 1702 some Sloane fossils, such as ‘concha lapidea curvirostra, rugosa & tuberculis quandoque munita dorso elatiori’; and ‘conchites ab uno cardinis latere brevissimus’. John Morton (1671–1726) probably made reference to a Sloane belemnite in his Natural History of Northamptonshire (1712: p. 181) and Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944) to a Carchariidae? vertebra (1891: p. 457) in his Catalogue of Fossil Fishes in the British Museum (Natural History) Part.1.
Sloane acquired his specimens from different collections, such as those of the naturalists Sir Tancred Robinson (c. 1658–1748) (fishes), John Beaumont (c. 1640–1731) (corals), James Petiver (c. 1665–1718) (molluscs), Mark Catesby (?1682–1749) (lamniforms, which came from the Maurice Johnson [1688–1755] Collection), Thomas Mason (fl 1660) (proboscides), Dr Richard Middleton Massey (1678–1743) (testunids), Dr Gottfried Klem (d 1703) (bivalves) and Dr John Casper Lavater (1741–1801) (echinoids) collections.
There are some very nice specimens, such as a Clypeaster batheri, which that Sloane was given by a Mr Munby, as he wrote on his catalogue (“Echinites from Jamaica given to me by Mr Munby”) from the Upper Oligocene; or the nautiloid of the London Clay of Surrey, sharks’ teeth from the Miocene of Malta, very well preserved fossil fishes from the Jurassic of Germany, molluscs from the Cenozoic of Paris and Lymington, and finally crinoids from the Silurian of Gotland, Sweden.
While Sloane had a great knowledge of the fossil literature of his time – his fossil catalogues cite figures and descriptions from the most important publications – he rarely published about his own fossil collection. Sloane was a collector, who was mostly interested in the specimens themselves and not questions about their nature or origin.
Sloane published at least 12 papers on natural history in the Philosophical Transactions between 1695 and 1749. Some of these were joint publications, such as Ranby and Sloane (1724) on an ostrich, or were authored by Sloane alone, such as his paper of 1749 on rhinoceros. However, only one of these papers (Sloane, 1727) was on fossils: Of Fossile Teeth and Bones of Elephants. Part the Second. In addition, he wrote a five-volume Catalogue of Fossils recording his collections of: corals, sponges, crustaceans, starfishes, serpents and human remains with extant and fossil specimens (3904); extant and fossil shells (5846); and extant and fossil fishes, birds and quadrupeds (4645). Plants were included in a further three volumes entitled Catalogue of Vegetables and Vegetable substances, with extant and fossil vegetables, seeds, plants and wood (12522). These catalogues are an inconsistent source of information, because of deficiencies in the stated provenances, donor details and bibliographical references.
Where you see Sloane fossils on display?
The British Museum in Bloomsbury currently has at least 45 geological and palaeontological specimens from the Sloane Collection on loan and on display in its Enlightenment gallery. Among the fossils are shells of the molluscs Strombus, Conus, Murex, Spondylus and Dipsas. This gallery represents an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosity. You can imagine how these specimens passed from various explorers and collectors to Sir Hans Sloane.
Stukeley, W. 1887. The family memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D. and the antiquarian and other correspondence of William Stukeley, Roger and Samuel Gale, etc. 3 vols. Durham: Andrews (for the Surtees Society).
Weld, C.R. 1848. A History of the Royal Society: With Memoirs of the Presidents. Vol. 1. London: Parker, 527 pp.
De Beer, Gavin Rylands. 1953. and the British Museum. London: Oxford University Press, 192 pp.