Hans Sloane 1660-1753

From Book Owners Online

Sir Hans SLOANE, 1st baronet 1660-1753

Biographical Note

Born at Killyleagh, co.Down, younger son of Alexander Sloane, agent for James Hamilton, Earl of Clanbrassill. After local schooling he studied chemistry and medicine at the Society of Apothecaries, London, and then on the continent, where he graduated Doctor of Medicine from the University of Orange in 1683. He returned to London and became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1687. After travelling in the Caribbean in the household of the Duke of Albemarle he married the heiress Elizabeth Langley in 1689, and established what became a very successful medical practice in London. His patients included many prominent and wealthy figures (including Queen Anne and George I), and alongside these activities he developed a scholarly reputation through publications on natural history, based partly on his observations in the West Indies. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1685, and was later its secretary, and president; he was president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1719, and attracted numerous other positions and recognitions during the course of a very successful career. He was made a baronet in 1716.


Sloane is remembered not only as a physician and author, but also for his many-faceted collections. He began collecting plants, shells and other natural-historical specimens during his travels to the West Indies, and went on to amass the most significant accumulation of such things of his generation, acquiring en masse the collections of others. By 1730 his Museum, for which he had acquired the house adjacent to his residence in Bloomsbury, was widely celebrated and visited by tourists and scholars. He was meticulous in cataloguing his materials, and at his death his inventories included 200 volumes of dried plants, over 5000 insects, 23,000 coins and medals, over 1400 corals, and over 50,000 books and manuscripts.

He began to acquire books during the 1680s, and continued throughout his life. He bought extensively from booksellers and auctions, and acquired numerous smaller libraries en bloc (for example, the books of the surgeon Joseph Fenton). His holdings of booksellers’ and auctioneers’ catalogues, often marked up with his intended or actual purchases, constitute a major resource of such things. Numerous catalogues made during his lifetime record the growth and contents of his library, and it seems that little was disposed of once acquired. His books included extensive holdings on medicine, science and natural history, as would be expected, but was also wide-ranging across all kinds of subjects.

In his will, Sloane directed that his collections should be offered for sale, in their entirety, to the King, or the Royal Society, or to a learned institution. After discussion and various rejections, his trustees persuaded Parliament to buy them for the benefit of the nation for £20,000, and they then became (along with the Cotton Library, and the manuscripts of Edward Harley) the foundation collections of the British Museum, opened to the public in 1757. His natural history materials were in due course moved to the Natural History Museum, but the books and manuscripts have continued to be core collections of what is now the British Library.

Sloane’s library has been extensively studied and documented, and a project has been running at the British Library for many years to reconstruct the contents (the books having been dispersed across the stacks since the eighteenth century). The references in the list of Sources below will provide a lot of further information on Sloane and his books.

One of Sloane's purchase codes, using astrological symbols (British Library 526.m.7, A. Achillinus, Opera, 1545)

Characteristic Markings

There are various markings which can be used to identify a books as Sloane’s, of which the best known are probably the price codes, using alchemical symbols, which he deployed between 1686 and 1699 (these are deciphered in Alison Walker’s articles, and elsewhere). He did not as a rule add his name to his books, but his shelfmarks and other acquisition codes can be recognised, and from ca.1730 onwards his librarian Thomas Stack added the inscription “Bibliothecae Sloanianae” to many books. Early octagonal British Museum ink stamps applied in black are supposed to indicate Sloane books, though this system was not always followed rigorously.