Science and lu­cre

David Gel­ber ap­plauds a metic­u­lous bi­og­ra­phy of the poly­math physi­cian whose global col­lec­tions of flora and fauna laid the foun­da­tions of the Bri­tish Mu­seum

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WHAT Pliny… never con­ceived the hu­man ge­nius would dare to un­der­take, we have seen ac­com­plished,’ de­clared one of Sir Hans Sloane’s eu­lo­gists fol­low­ing his death in 1753. Sloane’s name, he pre­dicted, would be­come ‘immortal’. In a sense, it has: the map of London abounds with streets chris­tened to hon­our him. But how many res­i­dents of Chelsea on their morn­ing trudge across Hans Cres­cent or through Sloane Square would be able to tell you any­thing about the man whose life they com­mem­o­rate?

No one who reads James Del­bourgo’s en­cy­clopaedic new bi­og­ra­phy of Sloane will want for in­for­ma­tion about the per­son he art­fully calls ‘the most cu­ri­ous man in the world’. Born in Ul­ster in 1660, Sloane was a mar­vel of his age—a physi­cian, nat­u­ral­ist, col­lec­tor and colonist whose fame ex­tended through­out the world. Any­one at­tempt­ing to chron­i­cle his long life and myr­iad ven­tures must have a mind at least as in­quis­i­tive as his. In this mag­nif­i­cent book, Prof Del­bourgo proves him­self a match for his sub­ject.

Sloane trained as a doc­tor in Eng­land and France, but owed his ini­tial suc­cess to a for­tu­itous piece of pa­tron­age. In 1687, Christo­pher, 2nd Duke of Albe­marle, was ap­pointed gov­er­nor of Ja­maica and chose Sloane to ac­com­pany him as his per­sonal physi­cian. the Duke, Sloane eu­phemisti­cally wrote, was ‘ac­cus­tomed by be­ing at court to sit­ting up late and of­ten be­ing merry’. Much of Sloane’s time on the is­land was spent tend­ing to the var­i­ous med­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions that flowed from his mas­ter’s ap­petite for wine.

In spare mo­ments, he gath­ered lo­cal flora and fauna, lay­ing the foun­da­tions of a col­lec­tion that would be­come the won­der of London and, af­ter his death, led to the es­tab­lish­ment of the Bri­tish Mu­seum.

Albe­marle’s life­style even­tu­ally caught up with him: the nu­mer­ous bleed­ings and purges that Sloane pre­scribed were not enough to save him. In early 1689, a few months af­ter his death, Sloane was sail­ing back to Britain. the ves­sel trans­port­ing him car­ried not just the Duke’s em­balmed body, but also Sloane’s col­lec­tion of plants, in­sects, birds and ca­cao, not to men­tion an al­li­ga­tor and a 7ft- long snake that feasted on the ship’s rats.

Sloane never again set foot out­side Britain. In­stead, he be­came an arm­chair im­pe­ri­al­ist, es­tab­lish­ing in his house in Chelsea a mi­cro­cosm of the Bri­tish Em­pire. His mar­riage in 1695 to El­iz­a­beth Rose Lan­g­ley, the widow of a Ja­maica plan­ta­tion owner, brought him a size­able for­tune, which he used to ac­quire items from across the globe. As Britain’s mar­itime power grew, so too did Sloane’s net­work of con­tacts: mer­chants, mis­sion­ar­ies, set­tlers and pi­rates were all charged with ac­quir­ing new and rare arte­facts for his col­lec­tion.

Prof Del­bourgo of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing anal­y­sis of the way Sloane’s ac­tiv­i­ties as a col­lec­tor dove­tailed with his med­i­cal prac­tice. ‘Science and lu­cre,’ he says, ‘went hand in hand.’ At a time when plants and an­i­mals were used for a wide va­ri­ety of treat­ments, Sloane’s nat­u­ral-his­tory col­lec­tion placed him at the fore­front of his pro­fes­sion. His in­ter­na­tion­ally sourced phar­ma­copeia, which in­cluded items such as gnats’ blood and beavers’ glands, al­lowed him to of­fer novel treat­ments.

His col­lec­tion also pro­vided good PR: it ad­ver­tised his learn­ing and lured new pa­tients to his prac­tice. As his fame grew, he at­tracted roy­alty and the cream of London so­ci­ety to his con­sult­ing rooms, be­com­ing as much a col­lec­tor of peo­ple as of nat­u­ral his­tory.

He also stacked up hon­ours, be­com­ing a baronet in 1716, pres­i­dent of the Col­lege of Physi­cians in 1719 and pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety in 1727. By then, he was de facto min­is­ter of health, over­see­ing med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments, is­su­ing pub­lic ad­vice on mat­ters such as breast-feed­ing and small­pox pro­phy­laxis and for­mu­lat­ing reg­u­la­tions for apothe­caries.

How­ever, Sloane’s long-term in­flu­ence on the sci­en­tific pro­fes­sion was small. the pri­mary pur­pose of his col­lec­tion was em­pir­i­cal: although he pub­lished lux­u­ri­ously il­lus­trated cat­a­logues of his col­lec­tions, these were de­scrip­tive rather than an­a­lyt­i­cal. ‘the list,’ Prof Del­bourgo states, ‘was his quin­tes­sen­tial lit­er­ary mode.’

His prin­ci­pal aim was to in­crease the sum of hu­man knowl­edge. Be­yond that, he sought only to pro­claim the glory of God by re­veal­ing the or­der and in­tri­cacy of his cre­ation. His philo­soph­i­cal lax­ity led some to dis­miss him as a char­la­tan: he was lam­pooned as a col­lec­tor of ‘peb­bles and cockle-shells’ and a ‘mas­ter of only scraps’.

If Sloane emerges from this book as an am­bigu­ous fig­ure— as much magpie as ma­gus— it is due to his bi­og­ra­pher’s thor­ough­ness in ex­plor­ing ev­ery as­pect of his life. Sloane might frown at some of his judg­ments, but he would, at least, ap­plaud his metic­u­lous­ness.

Lucy Wors­ley’s sprightly new bi­og­ra­phy of Jane Austen, crit­i­cised in some quar­ters for a per­ceived reliance on a pre­vi­ous Austen bi­og­ra­phy, of­fers read­ers a buoy­antly par­ti­san ac­count of the life of one of Britain’s best-loved nov­el­ists.

At the out­set, Dr Wors­ley dis­claims im­par­tial­ity: Jane Austen at Home is a cel­e­bra­tion of her un­abashed ad­mi­ra­tion for an au­thor she rein­vents as a per­sonal hero­ine and, in a very 21st-cen­tury fash­ion, an icon of fe­male choice, achieve­ment and em­pow­er­ment. This is not con­ven­tional lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy.

The writer’s close en­gage­ment with her sub­ject im­parts a de­gree of live­li­ness to her text, an ef­fect con­sol­i­dated by her in­for­mal, even col­lo­quial prose style: her ref­er­ence, for ex­am­ple, to ‘Ge­or­gian ladies… go­ing bonkers’ and an un­cle for­tu­nate in his in­her­i­tance who is de­scribed as ‘hav­ing won his own game of Legacy Bingo’.

The nar­ra­tive voice here is re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to that of Dr Wors­ley’s many tele­vi­sion pro­grammes: re­fresh­ing, en­thu­si­as­tic, de­ter­minedly up­beat in con­trast to much of Austen’s life, which, even as it sur­vives in patchy re­main­ing sources, con­tained its frus­tra­tions and dis­ap­point­ments, along­side ultimate suc­cess as a writer.

‘There are a thou­sand ad­van­tages to be de­rived from a mar­riage,’ Austen wrote, ‘be­sides those in­fe­rior ones of rank and For­tune it will pro­cure me a home, which of all other things is what I most de­sire.’ This state­ment, with its fo­cus on home, pro­vides Dr Wors­ley’s in­spi­ra­tion for her retelling of Austen’s life through do­mes­tic de­tails and the search for her own pri­vate space: her em­pha­sis is con­sis­tently on what Austen called the ‘lit­tle mat­ters on which the daily hap­pi­ness of pri­vate life de­pends’ and her ac­count is en­riched by a dis­cur­sive con­tex­tual el­e­ment.

There is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing qual­ity to much of this ac­count, com­mis­sioned, like oth­ers, to co­in­cide with the bi­cen­te­nary of Austen’s death. In the long term, Dr Wors­ley’s bi­og­ra­phy may not ac­quire the longevity of less per­sonal ac­counts, but this does not di­min­ish its plea­sure in the short term. Matthew Den­ni­son

‘There is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing qual­ity to much of this ac­count

Sir Hans Sloane: ‘the most cu­ri­ous man in the world’

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