Sir Hans Sloane was a major figure of 18th Century. He became a successful physician in London with the Royal Family and other eminent persons as his patients but he still found time to treat the poor for nothing. He amassed a large fortune and was able to pursue his lifelong interest in natural history, amassing a vast,important collection that was the foundation of the British Museum.
Hans was born in Killyleagh 16th April 1660. His father was Alexander Sloane, receiver general of taxes, originally from Scotland, and father of seven sons. His father died when Hans was six years old. His mother was Sarah Hicks Sloane, daughter of William Hicks, Canon of Chichester. They lived in a thatched house on Frederick Street, Killyleagh, near to Killyleagh Castle. The house was demolished much later but the lintel stone was saved and moved across the street where a plaque has been erected to acknowledge Killyleagh’s most illustrious son.
The three Sloane boys that survived infancy received their education at the school provided by James Hamilton and they had access to the library at the Castle. James became an eminent lawyer, William a merchant and Hans a prominent physician. The early days in Killyleagh were well suited to Hans as his interests in natural history, particularly botany, developed.
At the age of 16 Hans suffered a severe illness that confined him to his room for over a year. At that time his interest in medicine grew and at the age of 19 he left for London to study medicine and natural sciences. He then went to Paris and attended lectures on botany, chemistry and anatomy and then on to the University of Orange where he became a Doctor of Medicine.He became intrigued by the search for new species and describing and naming new plants and animals was a passion which he would put to good use. On return to London in 1685 he was made a Fellow of the young but prestigious Royal Society, and in 1687 a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He was offered the chance to travel to Jamaica as physician to the new Governor, the 2nd Duke of Albermarle.
With a list of questions and requests for specimens from John Ray and others the young physician undertook the 3 month voyage, a time he did not waste, making observations during the voyage on phosphorescence in the water and the habits of sea birds. During the 15 months that he was in Jamaica, Sloane made extensive notes on the local fauna and flora, the customs of the local inhabitants and natural phenomena such as earthquakes. He compiled a substantial collection of Jamaican plants, in addition to molluscs, insects, fish and many other specimens.
While in Jamaica, Hans Sloane was introduced to cocoa as a drink favoured by the local people. He found it ‘nauseous’ but by mixing it with milk made it more palatable. He brought this chocolate recipe back to England where it was manufactured and at first sold by apothecaries as a medicine. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, it was taken up by Messrs Cadbury who manufactured chocolate using Sloane’s recipe. Following the unfortunate death of the Duke, Sloane returned to England in 1689. He published in two volumes the information he had gathered in Jamaica. This work contains careful and very readable descriptions of not only the plants and animals he encountered but also how natural resources were used by the islands’ inhabitants. The great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus used Sloane’s text and drawings as the basis for descriptions of new species in his major work the Species Plantarum.
In 1695 Hans married Elizabeth Langley Rose, the widow of a sugar planter in Jamaica. Of their four children two died when young but two girls, Sarah and Elizabeth, survived. He developed his medical and scientific interests and because President of the Royal Society, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton, and President of the Royal College of Physicians.
The Sloane’s lived in Bloomsbury, near to the site of the present British Museum. His collections grew and he bought the adjacent house to help accommodate them. Corridors and rooms were filled from top to bottom with plants, animals, gemstones, coins, antiquities, books and many more objects. Sloane’s ‘Museum’ became a major attraction of its time and was visited by a stream of distinguished visitors from Britain and abroad.
That house also filled and Sloane eventually bought a large manor house in Chelsea with surrounding farmland to house the collection containing 117,000 items of which about 50,000 were books and manuscripts. On his death at the age of 92 (11th January 1753) the nation purchased his collection and then to house it created the British Museum. His bust is the first item on view at the entrance to the Museum. When the Natural History Museum and the British library were built the natural objects, books and manuscripts were transferred to those establishments.
Such was the esteem of Hans Sloane that Sloane Square was created and a statue erected in the nearby Physic Gardens. Those gardens were founded and bequeathed by Sir Hans Sloane to the Apothecaries’ Company for the cultivation of medicinal plants for the benefit of medical students. It consists of 4 acres, and is one of the oldest of existing gardens. The cedars of Lebanon are supposed to be the first known in this county, and are said to have been planted in 1683. The statue, by Rysbrack, of Sir Hans Sloane, who gave the freehold of the ground on consideration of an annual presentation of plants to the Royal Society, stands in the centre of the Botanic Gardens, to which the public are not admitted. His property and fortune passed to his two daughters but on the death of Sarah all passed to Elizabeth, married to General Charles Cadogan. The lands remain with the Cadogan family.
Recently Sir Hans Sloane Square was created in Killyleagh, complete with a copy of the statue from the physic garden and there is a memorial at Killyleagh Castle. The Parish Church contains the graves of his father and some of his brothers. Hans Sloane is buried at Chelsea Old Church and his tomb bears the inscription:
“In memory of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart, President of the Royal Society and of the Collage of Physicians, who died in the year of our Lord 1753, the ninety-second year of his age, without least pain of body, and with a conscious serenity of mind eniled a virtuous and beneficient life. This monument was erected by his two daughters, Elizabeth Cadogan and Sarah Stanley”