Sir Hans Sloane

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Sloane, Sir Hans, Bart., M.D., an eminent physician, founder of the collection that formed the basis of the British Museum, was born at Killyleagh, County of Down, 16th April 1660. From his youth he evinced quick parts, keen powers of observation, and a wonderful taste for natural science. In his eighteenth year he went to London with the object of increasing his knowledge of chemistry and botany. He pursued his studies under Staphorst, and ere long acquired the friendship of John Ray and Robert Boyle. After six years of steady labour, he went to France, in 1683, and in July took the degree of Doctor of Medicine in the University of Orange. Next year he returned to England, in 1685 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1687 a fellow of the College of Physicians, and he early laid the foundation of that London practice which eventually led him to social eminence and to fortune.

In 1687 he accompanied the Duke of Albemarle, on his appointment as Governor of the West Indies, as his physician and as chief physician to the West Indian fleet. Sloane named his own terms — £600 per annum, and £300 for outfit. Without in any way neglecting his medical duties, he devoted himself enthusiastically to the investigation of the fauna and flora of the islands, and during his eighteen months' residence made large collections of natural objects. He returned to England in consequence of the Duke's death. He made a fortunate investment in the importation of a quantity of cinchona bark, the value of which as a drug he made more widely known in England. His additions to botanical knowledge were important. In 1693 he was elected to the secretaryship of the Royal Society, and a year afterwards was made Physician to Christ's Hospital. In 1696 he published his Catalogus Plantarum quae in Insula Jamaica sponte proveniunt; but the work which contributed most to his reputation was his Natural History of Jamaica, which was not completed until after thirty-eight years' labour. The first volume appeared in 1708.

He filled the office of physician to George I., who, in 1716, created him a baronet In 1719 he became President of the College of Physicians, and in 1727 he received the crowning honour of his life — being made President of the Royal Society on the death of Sir Isaac Newton. During all these years he had been getting together a splendid museum and library, which in 1741 he removed to his villa at Chelsea. His mental vigour long outlived his powers of locomotion; to the last it was his delight to be wheeled in a chair about his museum, and to examine its contents. He appears to have acted on the maxim he often repeated to patients: "I never take physic when I am well. When I am ill, I take little, and only such as has been very well tried." Sir Hans Sloane died 11th January 1753, aged 92, and was buried at Chelsea, in the same vault in which, twenty-eight years before, he had laid his wife. Two daughters survived him, who carried his wealth to the Stanleys and Cadogans.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says: "Sir Hans, being extremely solicitous lest his cabinet of curiosities, which he had taken so much pains to collect, should be again scattered at his death, and being at the same time unwilling that so large a portion of his fortune should be lost to his children, bequeathed it to the public, on condition that £20,000 should be made good by Parliament to his family. The sum, though large in appearance, was scarcely more than the intrinsic value of the gold and silver medals, the ores and precious stones, that were found in it; for in his last will he declares that the first cost of the whole amounted at least to £50,000. Parliament accepted the legacy, and fulfilled the conditions, and from this ample collection the British Museum had its origin." Sir Hans Sloane's collection contained about 44,000 books, manuscripts, drawings, and volumes of hortus siccus; 32,000 medals and coins; 1,100 antiquities; 3,000 cameos, seals, and precious stones; 500 vessels of agate and jasper; 1,800 crystals; 6,000 shells; and all the other objects in proportion, which are usually to be found in a museum.

Besides devoting such large sums to science, Sir Hans was a munificent reliever of distress and suffering amongst his fellow men. Sloane-street in London perpetuates his name, and the Earl of Cadogan now represents him in that region of the Metropolis.

Sources

48b. British Museum, Lives of Founders of: Edward Edwards. 2 vols. London, 1870.

124. Encyclopaedia Britannica. London, 1860.

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