Sir Hans Sloane

A physician by trade, Sir Hans Sloane was also a collector of objects from around the world. By his death in 1753 he had collected over 71,000 objects. Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will and it became the founding collection of the British Museum.

Sloane the physician

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) was born in Killyleagh, Ireland in relatively modest circumstances. Inspired by a childhood interest in natural history, he studied medicine in London and France.

In 1689, Sloane set up a successful medical practice at his home in No. 3 Bloomsbury Place – coincidentally just along the street from the present Museum building. He had a number of wealthy and aristocratic patients, among them Queen Anne and Kings George I and II.

An innovative doctor, Sloane promoted inoculation against smallpox, the use of quinine (a treatment for malaria) and the health-giving properties of drinking chocolate mixed with milk.

He became President of the College of Physicians in 1719 and in 1727 succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society.

An engraving of Sir Hans Sloane

Sloane the collector

Sloane’s career as a collector really began in 1687 when, as personal physician, he accompanied the new Governor, the Duke of Albermarle, to Jamaica. He collected some 800 species of plants and other live specimens to bring back to London. An account of his travels was published in 1707 and 1725.

He absorbed complete collections made by others, among them William Charlton (Courten) (16421702) and James Petiver (d.1718). He also received objects from friends and patients. As a result his collection outgrew the house at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place and he purchased No. 4 as well.

Sloane’s house was visited by numerous people, among them was the composer Handel who is said to have outraged his host by placing a buttered muffin on one of his rare books.

In 1742 he moved with his collections to a manor house in Chelsea. His time there is still commemorated by such place names as Sloane Square and Hans Crescent.

Sloane died at the age of 93 in 1753 and was buried at Chelsea Old Church. By then, his collection amounted to more than 71,000 objects. Chiefly natural history specimens, the collection also included:

  • 23,000 coins and medals
  • 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts
  • a herbarium (a collection of dried plants)
  • 1,125 'things relating to the customs of ancient times'
Hans Sloane's specimen tray © 2003 The Natural History Museum

Foundation of the British Museum

In his will, Sloane bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his heirs.

Parliament accepted the gift and on 7 June 1753 an Act of Parliament establishing the British Museum received the royal assent. Sloane’s collection became the foundation of the British Museum.

Further reading

Arthur MacGregor (ed), Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, scientist, antiquary (London, 1994)
E St John Brooks, Sir Hans Sloane: The Great Collector and his Circle (London, 1954)
Gavin R de Beer, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum (London, 1953)

An early British Museum admission ticket

Images from top:

  • Sir Hans Sloane, an engraving from a portrait by T. Murray
  • Sir Hans Sloane's specimen tray © The Natural History Museum
  • Admission ticket to the British Museum, 3 March AD 1790