Specimens: The Sloane Herbarium

Portrait of Hans Sloane in seaweed specimens alongside his initials and date; pages from the Sloane Herbarium, Natural History Museum, London.

Over a year ago I wrote a series of posts on herbarium specimens (1,2,3,4) I found particularly interesting.  I’ve encountered many more since then, so it’s time to take up the topic again.  One particularly rich mine is the 265-volume herbarium of Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  The museum’s principle herbarium curator Mark Carine is one of the investigators involved in the Sloane Lab which aims at digitally linking the Sloane collections at the NHM, the British Library (BL), and the British Museum (BM).  The latter was founded to house the specimens—animals and vegetable—as well as the books, coins, art works, and anthropological materials Sloane had amassed (Delbourgo, 2017).  Eventually the BM’s growing collections were dispersed to new institutions:  the NHM in the 19th century and the BL in the 20th

These rearrangements made sense organizationally, but caused logistical problems for researchers.  For example, after a career in digital publishing, Brad Scott is now a doctoral student at the University of London studying the Sloane Herbarium as part of Sloane Lab.  However, if he wants to consult many of Sloane’s papers, he has to go to the British Library.  Reconnecting Sloane is working on an infrastructure for digitization of the various collections to make this rich trove of material available to a much large audience, not only of researchers but others who are living in a world very much shaped by Sloane and his peers.  He was longtime president of the Royal Society, so he influenced scientific inquiry and exerted political sway over the economic development of Britain’s growing colonization efforts.

All this can be seen through the lens of the Sloane Herbarium, and Brad Scott is going through its volumes, examining the more than 100 collections represented there.  He estimates that only about 3% of the specimens were actually gathered by Sloane.  Most of these are from early in his career while he was studying to be a physician, first in England and then in France, where he was taught by the great French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort.  A few years later he went Jamaica as physician to the governor and collected plants and animals with the assistance of locals, including enslaved and indigenous peoples.  But as his interest in plants grew, so did his collections.  Some were given him by friends at times as bequests, many were purchased, and others were acquired in trade.  While the herbarium specimens are primarily pre-Linnaean, and most do not include updated nomenclature, they are still valuable in documenting how plants moved geographically.  Also, some of them may be sources of DNA that could shed light on plant traits and evolutionary changes.   

A significant portion of Sloane’s wealth came from plantations in Jamaica that had been left to his wife by her first husband.  This wealth was dependent on the labor of African enslaved persons as well as on indigenous peoples, some of whom were also enslaved.  Since he was interested in the increasing number of exotic plants being discovered around the world, he also had many dealings with those involved in shipping and commerce, some involved in slave trade (Murphy, 2020).  So Sloane’s collection can definitely be seen through the lens of exploitation and colonization, making it rich in the kind of information being sought by those involved in what has become known as decolonizing collections (Das & Lowe, 2018). 

The present studies are hardly the first on the herbarium.  In the late 19th century, a botanist at the NHM James Britten compiled an annotated list of the herbaria in Sloane’s collection along with brief biographies of the principal contributors.  This work was never published.  A later NHM botanist James Edgar Dandy revised and added to the manuscript which appeared in 1958.  It is still the premier reference on the collection, and Scott uses it in his research, making further revisions.  There is no other comprehensive catalogue of the herbarium, but what is invaluable is Sloane’s own copy of John Ray’s three-volume Historia Plantarum, annotated by Sloane with the volume and page number for each species he had in his collection, with additions for those plants not listed in Ray.  It is still used to this day, along with an annotated copy of Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica that has the same kinds of notations, along with later ones written by the Carl Linnaeus’s student Daniel Solander who was hired by the BM to update the names with Linnaean nomenclature (Rose, 2018). 

It has taken me so long to set the stage for Scott’s work that I will have to dig into it in the next post.  I realize that I haven’t written about even one individual specimen in a post purportedly on specimens.  So I’ll end with two that were Tweeted about by Mark Carine.  They may not be of much scientific value but they are definitely interesting (see above).  The first is apparently a portrait of Sloane done in seaweed, and the other has his initials and the year 1707.  They seem like the kind of thing created in the mid-19th century when there was a craze for algae collecting and preparing scrapbooks of specimens, sometimes with a greater emphasis on design than on science.  I suspect Sloane got a kick out of these, though who made them is unknown.  This may not be the most significant outcome from the Sloane Lab, but I think it is a great reminder that there can be joy and humor in herbaria as well as botanical and cultural revelations.


Das, S., & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature read in black and white: Decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4–14.

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

Murphy, K. S. (2020). James Petiver’s ‘kind friends’ and ‘curious persons’ in the Atlantic World: Commerce, colonialism and collecting. Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(2), 259–274. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2019.0011

Rose, E. D. (2018). Specimens, slips and systems: Daniel Solander and the classification of nature at the world’s first public museum, 1753–1768. The British Journal for the History of Science, 51(2), 1–33. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007087418000249

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