The Hans Sloane fossil collection at the Natural History Museum, London

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.

Fig. 1. The statue of Sir Hans Sloane at Chelsea Physic Garden, London. This was unveiled on 30 April 2014 by a descendant of Sloane, Earl Cadogan.

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.

Fig. 2. The proportion of the different fossil groups in the Sloane Collection.

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.

Fig. 3. A fossil lower ray tooth of Aetobatis arcuatus from the Miocene of Maryland, a figure of which was published by Sloane in 1695.

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Sir Hans Sloane
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