Hans Sloane

County Down inventor of milk chocolate was the Queen's physician, an early advocate for vaccinations and his collection was the cornerstone of what became the British Museum

Sir Hans Sloane, born in Killyleagh, County Down in 1660, became one of the most formidable cultural figures to emerge from Ulster. At one end of the spectrum, his extraordinary collecting activities over a lifetime formed the basis for the foundation of the British Museum in 1753. At another, it is to him that we owe British and Irish preference for milk chocolate as against continental black chocolate – as Cadbury’s advertised it, ‘Sold here Sir Hans Sloane’s milk chocolate…’.

His family were of Scots descent and his father, Alexander Sloane, was receiver-general of taxes for County Down. His mother, Sarah, was the daughter of the Rev. William Hicks, said to have been one time chaplain to Archbishop Laud. Although hardly of the gentry, they were well connected and enjoyed modest prosperity. He was one of seven children born in quick succession, and one other brother, James, was to serve as MP for Killyleagh in the Irish Parliament.

Sloane was educated locally, and as a member of a family with some status, and thanks to his own aptitude may have been marked out for particular attention. He soon showed a special interest in botany and zoology and the collecting of specimens from nearby Strangford Lough and as far afield as the Copeland Islands. Teenage illness, and probably consumption, confined him to the house for three years, and may have encouraged his bookish interests and his main career in medicine.

At the age of 19 he travelled to London to train as an apothecary, and completed his medical studies in France. On returning to London he secured the support of the leading physician of the day, Thomas Sydenham. Simultaneously he became friends with key intellectuals such as Robert Boyle and John Ray and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1685 and of the Royal College of Physicians in 1687.

In the same year he was appointed as personal physician to the 2nd Duke of Abermarle on the latter’s appointment as Governor of Jamaica. Sloane’s sojurn in Jamaica lasted for less than two years from 1687-1689 because of Abermarle’s death, but was immensely fruitful. It was here that he discovered that taking cocoa with milk reduced its bitterness, and also the use of quinine as a cure for fever. He also indulged in his passion for collecting, bringing back to blighty 800 plant specimens. His pioneer catalogue of the plants of Jamaica was published in 1696.

Professionally Sloane served as physician to Queen Anne, and to members of the Hanoverian succession, a connection which encouraged other rich patients and helped secure him a baronetcy in 1716. At the same time he practised free for the poor, and supported the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in 1739. 

Sloane was an early advocate of inoculation against smallpox, but otherwise was not a notable medical innovator, and supported many of the conventional and often disastrous palliatives of the time, such as bleeding, but rose to be President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1719.

His interests in natural history and collecting in many fields were to prove of more enduring significance. He served as Secretary to the Royal Society from 1693-1712, and did much to encourage their researches and publication programme, and succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President in 1727.

His house in Bloomsbury became noted for the brilliance of the company he kept, and also for his ever growing collections. These were augmented when his friend, William Courten, bequeathed his own personal museum to him, and by the purchase of a variety of other important collections.

Sloane’s treasures outgrew Bloomsbury and were largely transferred to a manor house in Chelsea which he purchased in 1712 and which remained his home until his death aged 92 in 1753. He is remembered there by street names such as Sloane Square, and even by the nickname for trendy young Chelsea residents as ‘Sloanites’.

Sloane bequeathed his collections to the nation, on condition that his family should receive £20,000. It was a good bargain because by then the collection comprised 23,000 coins and medals, 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts, ‘a herbarium’, and 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’. An Act of Parliament followed in 1753 establishing the ‘Trustees for the British Museum’, and with the help of a £100,000 lottery the institution came into being at Bloomsbury in 1759 with Sloane’s collection at its core.

Thus the boy from Killyleagh made his mark at the centre of the English world. He never returned to his original home, but the foundations of what he achieved lay on the shores of Strangford Lough. He was not always adequately remembered locally. His childhood home at 49 Frederick Street survived right through to 1970 when, disgracefully, it was demolished to make way for a housing development, though the original keystone from above the doorway and dated 1637 does survive.

John Gray