Hans Sloane’s greatest legacy is surely the British Museum – and its outstanding collections.
But we should then throw our minds back to the middle 17th century – more accurately the 1670s – to a little village in county Down called Killyleagh and to a little boy by the name of Hans Sloane. He was a determined youngster whose obsession was collecting all sorts of items – plants, eggs and anything else unusual that crossed his path. Quickly – and again curiously – he discovered the Latin names of each of his finds from the library in the castle in the village. Then he catalogued everything and placed it, properly marked of course in a jar or a sturdy box – and he was barely ten years old – the first step to his goal which was to be that legacy.
And, from early on he made sure that all his friends and neighbours should have the opportunity to come in and see what he had found – and throughout his long life he continued to encourage both rich and poor to share his enthusiasm for ‘all things new’ – the second step to that legacy.
And had Hans not taken good care of himself in his teenage years when he contracted what would later be known as TB or tuberculosis, he would never have lived into his 90s. The third step of his legacy – abstemiousness and temperate eating.
Then qualifying, albeit rather problematically, as a doctor rather than as a chemist which had been his initial chosen profession, where would the world be without that British Museum? And so although a doctor of distinction, he never missed an opportunity to add to his collections no matter where he found himself. And to find himself in the Caribbean in the 1680s on the island of Jamaica, opened yet more doors for the medic Dr Sloane but also for the collector Hans Sloane. To be able to pursue his career in such a wonderful place opened yet more doors which, believe it or not, not only meant finding fabulous items in that part of the world but even gave him the chance to find a cure for seasickness from which he suffered on the long voyage to the Caribbean. And so this would be his fourth – and probably one of his greatest steps to that legacy – cures for common diseases which were killing much of the world’s population.
But possibly the discovery which was to keep his name to the fore and which still keeps it there – was his discovery of drinking chocolate. He probably wasn’t the first visitor to enjoy this lovely drink but he certainly was the one who brought it to the British Isles and marketed it – Cadbury’s used the recipe for many years. This would be his fifth step towards his legacy.
Whilst in the Caribbean Sloane discovered further benefits of quinine for the treatment of eye aliments and brought supplies of Peruvian bark back home – and so more lives were saved by the forethought of Hans – legacy step number six thus came into play.
When he returned from the West Indies and still only in his upper 20s, Hans was elected to the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons – his fame had already gone before him. He set up his medical practice in London’s fashionable Bloomsbury Place and immediately proved himself a most worthy physician to everyone. On his doctor’s list were his neighbours who made a contribution for his services as well as lots of less well off folk who were treated by Dr Sloane whether they could pay or not. He even made sure that prescriptions were made available to everyone – even to those who had not the wherewithal to pay for them. And this same kindly and beneficent doctor welcomed members of the Royal Family to his surgery. And possibly his greatest step towards that legacy was when he was able to keep Queen Anne alive long enough for her to sign a document to ensure the continuance of the Hanoverian succession. And this was just step number eight.
By this time around 1720, he became the President of the College of Surgeons. Although there were some of his so called eminent colleagues who disapproved of Sloane’s methods, the vast majority of the learned members realised what an excellent colleague they had in Hans Sloane. He was a firm believer in getting rid of many quack ‘remedies’ and shamed those who, in prescribing them, were not curing their patients but who were fleecing them of their hard earned earnings. And it wasn’t long before he saw the importance of inoculation which, to most people of that time, seemed a very risky way of curing a disease. He made sure to inoculate his own children and, believe it or not, many of the royal princes and princesses. Perhaps his courage, tenacity and vision in this aspect of his profession turned out to be his greatest step – step number nine - towards his legacy to all of us in this early 20th century.
Whilst he was treating his patients he was, of course, adding to his now vast collections – he even had to buy the house next door to house them and employ curators to look after them. He was a member too of the Royal Society and was their hard working secretary for many years. This is yet another characteristic of Hans Sloane’s life – when he took on a job he stuck to it through thick and thin. He cared little for those who tried to obstruct the work he was doing. He brushed them aside and concentrated on the work in hand. This skilled communicator, our little lad from Killyleagh, was acknowledged and honoured by universities at home and abroad – and clearly this step number ten leads us on to that legacy.
But, as the years rolled by, Hans began to wonder – and be concerned about – what would happen to his extensive and precious collections, which now numbered over 80,000 artefacts. By now lots of these items had been brought from all parts of the world and donated to him by those who had discovered them. And, lest we forget, there still remained the many little shells and plants which he had found in his home village in the 1670s. Whilst considering this dilemma Hans decided to move to Chelsea where he owned the Manor House. He loved the area and especially the Physic Garden yet he began to worry about his collections even more. Where would they end up? Would they be split up and lost and would there be anyone who would be prepared to love and care for them as he had always done? And so we have reached step number eleven in fulfilling the Hans Sloane legacy.
Now well into his 80s, but still passionate about his collections, he started a campaign to ensure his collections remained intact; that his collections would be seen and viewed by everyone and that his so called knowledgeable and wise colleagues in the world of antiquity would take up the Sloane baton to keep his collections intact and open to the world. He decided he would place his collections in the hands of trustees and King George II in the hope – and expectation – that they would agree to take and care for them. However he also declared that, should these worthies fail to agree, then they should be donated to one of Britain’s or Europe’s best known universities. The matter was debated in the House of Commons but no final decision had been taken when Hans Sloane died, at the age of 92, on 11 January 1753.
But Sloane’s will and tenacity was fulfilled when, on 15 January 1759, just six tears after he died, the first British Museum was opened to the public at Montagu House. Hans Sloane’s collections were kept intact; Hans Sloane’s wish that everyone should have the chance to view them had been achieved and he could rest inn peace knowing that his life’s work would live on – and so the final step number twelve towards the Hans Sloane legacy had been, and still to this day is, there before us – that wonderful building that is the British Museum complete, of course, with that glass covered showcase in the main room of the museum displaying those first items he collected in Killyleagh in 1680.
This is Hans Sloane’s legacy to us all – be proud of him.