Physician, Botanist, Collector
Born 1660 Died 1753

Hans Sloane who is remembered as the inventor of milk chocolate and the 'Great Collector' who become one of the founding fathers of the British Museum, was born on the 16th April 1660 1 at Killyleagh in County Down, Ireland. The youngest of seven sons, his father Alexander Sloane was the local tax-collector and one of the many Scottish immigrants who had settled in the Plantation of Ulster during the first half of the seventeenth century.

According to Hans himself, "from my Youth been very much pleas'd with the study of Plants and other Parts of Nature" and indeed he appears to made himself useful to such men as John Ray and Robert Boyle by supplying them with examples of various plants that he had collected. His education was however interrupted when, from the age of sixteen, he began to suffer from haemoptysis. It took him two or three years to learn how to control the condition but eventually he moved to London in 1679 to study chemistry at the Apothecaries Hall and botany at the Physic Garden at Chelsea. In 1683 Hans left for France to further his studies in anatomy, medicine and botany. He went to lectures at the Hospital de la Charite in Paris and the Royal Garden of Plants, and attended the renowned medical school at Montpellier. But since Protestants were debarred from receiving degrees at both Paris and Montpellier, he also enrolled at the University of Orange which had no such prohibition and it was at Orange on the 28th July 1683 that he gained the degree of Doctor of Medicine.

Furnished with an introduction to Thomas Sydenham, he returned to London where he set up in practice as a physician and soon met some measure of success; in 1685 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1687 a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.


In 1687 Hans accepted the post of physician to Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica. It might seem rather odd for young doctor to abandon his practice in order to travel abroad, but Hans was alive to the advantages that a tour in Jamaica might bring, and was eager to go there as it "seem'd likewise to promise to be useful to me". The point being that Jamaica was virgin ground to the botanist at the time and so provided the opportunity for the discovery of previously unknown botanical specimens. This was not simply a matter of intellectual curiosity, as plants were seen as a source of new drugs, and Hans as we have seen was very much concerned with the commercial potential of such discoveries.

Although Hans only spent fifteen months in Jamaica he did get the opportunity to treat the infamous Henry Morgan, the former pirate who was suffering from insomnia as a result of his overindulgence in alcohol. His visit to Jamaica was necessarily cut short by the death of his employer Christopher Monck on the 6th October 1688. Hans was thus obliged to return to England with the Duke's widow, although their departure was delayed by the political situation back home in England (the Glorious Revolution was in progress) and it was not until 16th March 1689 that they left Jamaica.

Hans returned with some 800 specimens, although not all of them made it back home alive; his attempt to bring home an alligator in a tub of brine and a "large yellow snake" proved unsuccessful as neither survived the journey. On his return to London he busied himself with collating the details of his Jamaican finds which were published as the Catalogus Plantarum.

On his return to London began to rebuild his medical practice at his home in No. 3 Bloomsbury Place and he gradually accumulated a long list of wealthy and aristocratic patients. Although like many successful doctors he owed his advancement to a pleasant bedside manner rather than any particular medical expertise. Neverthless he served as Physician Extraordinary to Queen Anne between 1712 and 1714 and later to George I in 1716, the same year in which he was created a baronet. In 1722 he was appointed physician-general to the army, served as president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1719 to 1735 and succeeded Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society in 1727 a post which he retained until 1740.

It would be therefore not to much of an exaggeration to say that he was the best known and most successful doctor of his time.


As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica rather pointedly remarks, "Sloane's memory survives more by his judicious investments than by anything that he contributed to the subject matter of natural science or even of his own profession."

It was his visit to Jamaica that proved to be foundation of his wealth and success. During his time in Jamaican he had participated in a wreck-raising adventure in Jamaica and it was there that he met Elizabeth Langley, the widow of a wealthy Jamaican planter Fulk Rose, whom he later married in 1695; both of which proved to be a useful source of funds. It was however by means of another oportunity that Hans really made his money.

Whilst he was in Jamaica Hans Sloane had observed that "Chocolate is here us'd by all Peoples, at all times". However the natives in the West Indies drank chocolate mixed with honey and pepper, a concoction quite unpalatable as far as Europeans were concerned; Hans himself recorded that he "found it in great quantities nauseous" whilst also noting that it "colours the Excrements of those feeding on it a dirty colour". Hans's great innovation was to find a way of making chocolate palatable for European tastes, which was simply to mix it with hot milk. Back in England he began the commercial production of 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate' which was marketed as a medicine noted "For its Lightness on the Stomach and its great Use in all Consumptive Cases". Chocolate soon joined coffee as one of the fashionable drinks of the age and made Hans yet another fortune.

His basic recipe for milk chocolate survived long after his death. It was the same recipe used by John Cadbury when he began selling chocolate in 1824, and thus Cadbury's Dairy Milk is a direct descendant of Hans Sloane's original confection.

The Great Collector

Having married a wealthy heiress, built up a successful medical practice as well as profiting from the commercial exploitation of his Jamaican discoveries, Hans Sloane became a wealthy man. And he devoted his wealth to pursuing his great passion for collecting. His primary interest was of course botany but Hans also collected coins, medals, manuscripts, anything in fact that held any curiosity value; because of his money, there was no limit on what he could acquire.

When his fellow collector William Courteen died in 1702, Hans inherited his extensive collection. In 1712 Hans further acquired Engelbert Kaempfer's collection of Japenese and Persian curiousities and again in 1718 paid £4,000 for James Petiver's collection. By 1722 one William Sherard was complaining that Sloane, whom he described as "wallowing in money", had effectively priced everyone else out of the market and by the end of his life Hans had "siphoned up practically every major botanical collection". Such indeed was the fame of Hans Sloane, the collector that his name was immortalised in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Three Garridebs where Nathan Garrideb proclaims that "I shall be the Hans Sloane of my age."

The collection soon outgrew his home at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place and Hans was obliged to purchase No. 4 to deal with the overflow. Eventually In 1742 he moved his collection to a manor house he had bought some years earlier at Chelsea. 2

At his death on the 11th January 1753 Hans bequeathed his entire collection of "books, drawings, manuscripts, prints, medals and coins; ancient and modern antiquities, seals and cameos, intaglios and precious stones; agates and jaspen, vessels of agate, jasper or crystal; mathematical instruments, drawings and pictures, and all other things" to the nation on condition that "may remain together and not be separated and that chiefly in and about the city of London, where I have acquired most of my estates and where they may by the great confluence of people be most used."

There was also the condition that the nation should pay to his executors £20,000, which despite being a significant sum at that time was very much less than the collection's value on the open market. The bequest was accepted on those terms by an Act of Parliament passed the same year. Eventually a site was found at Montague House3 in Bloomsbury where the collection was opened to the public as the British Museum in 1759.

Over a century later in 1883 the botanical collections at Bloomsbury were transferred to a new home, ­the British Natural History Museum ,which in 1963 became the independent Natural History Museum, giving Hans a role as the one of the founding father's of that institution as well.


  • The Catalogus Plantarum or more simply known as The Catalogue, published in 1696.
  • The Natural History, known more fully as A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, etc. of the last of those ISLANDS the first volume of which appeared in 1707, and the second in 1725.
  • An Account of a Medicine for Soreness, Weakness and other Distempers of the Eyes published at London in 1745.


1 Note that 16th April 1660 is simply the generally accepted date of his birth.
2 His time at Chelsea is still commemorated by such street names as Sloane Square and Hans Crescent.
3Montagu House had co-incidentally had been established by Ralph Montagu from the money he derived form marrying the 2nd Duke of Albemarle's widow.


  • Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits (Little, Brown and Co, 1999)
  • The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (WM Norton and Co, 2005)
  • National History Museum
  • J. B. Palmer, Sir Hans Sloane, New Ulster, Spring, 1992
  • The History of the BM: Sir Hans Sloane
  • Chambers' Book of Days
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for SLOANE, SIR HANS