Sloane, Sir Hans (1660–1753), physician-general, collector, and founder of the British Museum, was born 16 April 1660 at Killyleagh, Co. Down, youngest of seven sons (of whom only three survived infancy) of Alexander Sloane (d. 1666), receiver-general of taxes for Co. Down, and Sarah Sloane, daughter of the Rev. William Hicks, chaplain to Archbishop Laud. He was educated locally, showing an early bent towards natural history and science. The neighbourhood of his home provided ample opportunities for nature studies, being close to Strangford Lough, an area studded with islands and abounding in wild fowl. At their father's death, Hans's brother James (1655–1704) inherited the house at Killyleagh; he became a barrister of the Inner Temple and MP for the borough of Killyleagh (1692–3, 1695–9). William, another brother, was a merchant and landowner. Hans's widowed mother married John Baillie of Inishargy, Co. Down; their daughter Alice married John Elsmere.
At the age of 16, Hans Sloane coughed blood and was obliged to rest at home for three years. Having recovered, he went to London to study medicine, completing his studies in Paris and Montpelier, and graduating MD at Orange (1683), a university that favoured protestants. On return to England he went to Thomas Sydenham, the leading physician of the day, with a letter of introduction describing Sloane as a good botanist (he had studied the subject under Pierre Magnol and Tournefort in Montpelier) and a skilful anatomist. ‘This is all very fine’, exclaimed Sydenham, reading the testimonial, ‘but it won't do. Anatomy! Botany! Nonsense! Sir, I know an old woman in Covent Garden who understands botany better. As for anatomy, my butcher can dissect a joint full and well. No, young man; all this is stuff. You must go to the bedside; it is there alone you can learn disease’ (Brooks, 45). Having thoroughly deflated the young doctor, Sydenham took him under his wing and introduced him to medical practice.
When invited to go to Jamaica as personal physician to the 2nd duke of Albemarle, who had been appointed governor, Sloane agreed to do so. He had been elected FRS in 1685, and his fellow savants Robert Boyle (qv) and John Ray also had great expectations of what a sojourn in the West Indies might bring by way of knowledge. He was to have £300 for equipment and preliminary expenses, and a salary of £600 a year. Sloane was elected fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1687. The voyage began on 12 September 1687 in the frigate Assistance, accompanied by two large merchantmen and the duke's private yacht. They dropped anchor in Port Royal (19 December), and before long Sloane had ample opportunities to indulge his passion for collecting, details of which are given in his A voyage to the islands of Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, St Christopher's and Jamaica, with the natural history of the last (2 vols, 1707, 1725), dedicated to Queen Anne. His patients on the island included the retired buccaneer Henry Morgan, to whom in vain he preached abstemiousness. The duke of Albemarle (also intemperate) died in the autumn of 1688 in his 35th year. Albemarle's wife was eccentric to a degree, but back in London by the end of May 1689 (with 800 species of plants) Sloane continued to serve as her personal physician.
He accepted the position of secretary to the Royal Society (1693–1712), resuming the publication of the Philosophical Transactions, dormant for some years. Sloane published his influential Catalogus plantarum quae in Insula Jamaica sponte proveniunt aut vulgo coluntur in 1696. His medical practice included many rich and influential patients. He amassed a fortune; was created a baronet by George I (1716); was president of the Royal College of Physicians (1719); and succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society (1727). His pharmaceutical cabinet did not lack the highly exotic remedies of the age – semi-precious stones, crabs' eyes, millipedes, and the like. More practical was his recommendation, for nutritional value, of milk and chocolate mixed. The Cadbury brothers were to use his recipe and print his name on their trade card: ‘Sold here Sir Hans Sloane's milk chocolate . . .’.
Called to visit Queen Anne professionally, he made the journey to Windsor in his coach in four hours. He also attended the queen's consort, Prince George of Denmark; he was paid a fee of £100 and (like a number of his colleagues) expressed an unjustifiably optimistic prognosis, for the prince died 8 October 1708. Nevertheless, he was appointed physician extraordinary to Queen Anne in 1712, and was among those who attended her in her last illness. After the Hanoverian succession his royal patients included the prince and princess of Wales (the future George II and Queen Caroline), but during at least one of the latter's illnesses he was outshone by Dr Mead, and it was reported at court that Sloane was out of favour. His advocacy of inoculation for smallpox ensured the acceptance of this method, supported also by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the princess of Wales. The latter arranged that six condemned men should be pardoned if they agreed to inoculation. Sloane asked a surgeon to carry out the procedure, which was performed with success.
Sloane was physician-general to the army from 3 June 1722 to 20 June 1727. His duties included the recommendation of physicians for commissions, the supervision of apothecaries, advising on the treatment of medical diseases in the hospitals, and presiding over examinations for posts as hospital mates. He wrote a preface for the fourth London pharmacopoeia (1724) and a pamphlet, An account of a most efficacious medicine for sore eyes (1745). He had prescribed Unguentum ophthalmicum sloanii for years. Sloane's methods included bleeding, blistering, and cupping. He had bought a large amount of Jesuits' or Peruvian bark (quinine) in Jamaica and prescribed it for ague, fevers, and certain nervous disorders. He communicated a notice on ‘Damier's powder’, a cure for the bite of a mad dog, to the Philosophical Transactions, but he was not an original medical thinker. A social rather than a scientific success, his services were offered at every level of society. He rose early to deal with a line of poor patients, from whom he took no fees. He was a governor of many London hospitals and lent his support to the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739. His hospitality was lavish; he held a weekly dinner party open to his friends in the College of Physicians and the Royal Society.
The specimens accumulated during the voyage to the West Indies formed the nucleus of Sloane's collection, augmented afterwards by the acquisition of the museum willed to him by his friend William Courten, and by the purchase of James Petiver's collection. In 1741 he gradually transferred it from his Bloomsbury home to the manor-house in Chelsea that he had purchased in 1712, and where he lived during his retirement. He was visited there in 1748 by the prince and princess of Wales, who sat with him and expressed their appreciation for what he had done for the world of learning.
Sloane lived to be a great age, and though he became too infirm to leave his house retained his interests. George Edwards, a naturalist friend, visited him weekly to keep him informed as to ‘the common news of the town’ and the progress of science. ‘I seldom missed drinking coffee with him on a Saturday [Edwards recalled], during the whole time of his retirement in Chelsea.’ On 10 January 1753 Edwards found Sloane dying; he succumbed at 4 a.m. on 11 January. He bequeathed his collections, including his books and manuscripts, to the nation on condition that parliament should reimburse his family with the token sum of £2,000, an amount less than the intrinsic value of the gold and precious stones alone. This necessitated an act of parliament. A number of public figures were incorporated as ‘Trustees for the British Museum’, and a lottery raised £100,000 for the purchase and upkeep of Montague House (£10,000 was paid for it) for the reception of the Sloane collection, the Harleian collection of manuscripts, and the Cottonian library.
He married (1695) Elizabeth Rose, née Langley (d. 1724), and they had a house at the corner of Southampton St., Bloomsbury. She was a daughter of John Langley, a London alderman, and widow of Fulk Rose of Jamaica. Two of their daughters survived to adult life; a son and a third daughter died in infancy. His daughters Sarah and Elizabeth married George Stanley and Col. Charles (later 2nd Baron) Cadogan respectively. The connection with the Cadogans' London estate resulted in such well-known place names as Sloane Square, Sloane St., Hans Place, and Hans Rd.