Collecting and Collectors

2 Sloane Herbarium sm

Website for the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

In the last post, I wrote about two individuals, Hans Sloane and John Jenks, who collected natural history specimens and founded museums, the British Museum and Brown University’s Jenks Museum of Natural History.  You have probably heard of the former, but the latter didn’t last half a century.  In part the difference has to do with the quality of the collections and their management.  However, there are also similarities between them.  In both cases, the collections weren’t amassed single-handedly.  Besides hunting down his own specimens, John Jencks bought, traded, and was given collections (Lubar, 2017), and Hans Sloane was a master “collector of collectors” (Delbourgo, 2017, p. 202).  He did begin by doing his own plant collecting as a student both in Britain and in France, where he studied before completing his medical degree in the Netherlands.  His most extensive collection work was in Jamaica, where he served as physician to the island’s governor, the Duke of Albemarle.  However, this work wasn’t done singlehandedly.  Like most collectors in foreign lands, Sloane relied on those living in Jamaica to lead him to interesting material.  Some of these individuals were plantation owners, some were slaves who had the most first-hand knowledge of the land.  While the latter are hardly mentioned in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, there is evidence from his notes and letters that they were involved.  This lack of attribution to the “real” collectors was common in botanical exploration.

After Sloane returned to England and became a noted physician, he had little time to do his own collecting.  He began acquiring materials from others, and this is where his large social network played a role.  He knew many wealthy collectors because at the time this was an important way of displaying not only wealth but learning and sophistication.  Sloane decided that he couldn’t excel at collecting everything, so he focused on books and on natural history, particularly plants.  He was in contact and traded specimens and information with all the major British collectors of the day.  In his herbarium, which is preserved at the Natural History Museum, London, there are specimens from over 280 individuals.  Some of the most impressive collections came from Leonard Plukenet, James Petiver, and William Courten after their deaths.  These individuals had all acquired collections from others, most notably Petiver had a large network of collectors throughout the world.  Petiver and Sloane were members of the Temple Coffee House Botanic Club who supported collectors such as Mark Catesby in the Carolinas and John Banister in Virginia.  Such early specimens from North America are obviously very important in documenting what was growing where in a relatively unspoiled environment.  Also, some Sloane specimens were referenced by Carl Linnaeus (1753) in Species Plantarum, making them species types (Jarvis, 2017).  In addition, Sloane acquired an interesting collection of horticultural plants from the Duchess of Beaufort, a talented botanist who documented the plants growing in her gardens (Laird, 2015).  These specimens included beautiful arrays of flower petals for varieties that disappeared long ago.

By the time Jenks was collecting in a manner similar to Sloane, these methods were outmoded.  There was a more systematic and large-scale method in vogue, particularly in the United States from 1880-1920, namely, survey collecting.  In All Creatures, Robert E. Kohler (2006) describes this approach to natural history, including the work of the US Geological Service which organized surveys nationwide.  However, I’ll focus on botanical surveys, and most of these were done on the state or local level.  What distinguished them from previous collecting efforts was that they were more intense and organized.  The great expeditions of earlier in the 19th century, such as those of John Frémont, Charles Wilkes, and John Wesley Powell, were wide-ranging and resulted in collections that were rather haphazard in the sense that plants might or might be in flower or in seed.  Surveys, on the other hand, were both intensive and extensive; they often went to the same locations repeatedly, to insure that all the plants in an area were represented by useful specimens.  These enterprises were less about discovering new species and more about inventorying what was growing in a particular place at a particular time.  Kohler argues that this was the beginning of a scientific approach to collecting that eventually led to today’s biodiversity research.

Survey collection was the result of several trends in US historical and cultural development.  The creation of an extensive railroad system after the Civil War made large portions of the country accessible enough for teams of collectors to travel economically.  Roads were also being extended and improved.  At the same time, land grant colleges were enlarging their offerings, with botany being an important component of agricultural programs.  The Nebraska survey was spearheaded by Charles Bessey who taught botany at the University of Nebraska.  It began as a student project and was a way to highlight the importance of the educational system to the advancement of science.  The scientific aspect of surveys was emphasized by the use of forms and field notebooks to record information uniformly.  It led to more informative specimen labels, a boon for those attempting to use these plants for biodiversity research today.

Kohler argues that by the 1930s, surveys became less common in part because the public as a whole wasn’t as interested in natural history as they had been in the 19th century.  Lack of interest meant less funding, which resulted in collecting from that time on being more focused:  on smaller areas and on particular plant groups.  However, the legacy of these surveys resides in the rich collections they produced which continue to fuel botanical research today.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Kohler, R. (2006). All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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