Specimens: Sloane’s Collections of Herbaria

Specimen of Anemone thalictroides in the Sloane Herbarium, Natural History Museum, London

In the last post, I discussed Hans Sloane’s herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) and work being done on exploring its contents.  In this post, I want to highlight some of the fascinating specimens found by Brad Scott in his doctoral research on the collection.  I’ll begin with medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, not the likeliest person to come to mind in relation to herbaria.  However, Scott found labels on James Cuninghame specimens cut from what Scott has identified as a 1567 edition of Aquinas.  Using scrap paper for labels or for pressing specimens was not uncommon since paper was often scarce particularly for a shipboard surgeon like Cuninghame who traveled twice to China.  The book may have been abandoned by him or someone else, and served as a ready source of scrap paper.  The fact that Scott hunted down the paper’s provenance suggests the thoroughness of his work.  He did something similar with scraps the physician and botanist Leonard Plukenet employed in making packets for seeds he attached to sheets along with the specimens.  In one case, the paper seems to be an advertisement for “Nendick’s P,” with the rest ripped off.  Scott couldn’t find the exact same version, but did discover another praising the benefits of Nendick’s Popular Pills for scurvy.  This speaks to aspects of material culture relating to specimens.  Beyond their scientific value, sheets often hold revelations about the culture of a period well beyond their scientific value.   

Another indication of careful research is a recent lecture Scott gave on George Handisyd, also a ship’s surgeon who was involved in plant collecting, particularly in South America and around the Straits of Magellan.  To flesh out the information on the specimens, Scott also examined ship logs and Handisyd’s correspondence to correlate items with specific dates and locations.  In another case, he examined the correspondence of Charles Preston to learn more about a package of 70 mosses that the Edinburgh botanist had sent to Sloane.  And going even farther afield, Scott went to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris to look at an album of specimens from Aleppo, Syria to compare it to a similar album in the Sloane Herbarium.  It turned out that the two were almost identical not only in binding, but in the specimens included and how they were arranged.  Apparently they were both created by an apothecary in Aleppo, Jean Bigot, and possibly brought to Paris by the traveler and botanist Jean Thévenot and sold to collector like Sloane who later donated one of his two copies to the Academy. 

William Courten, also known as Charleton, created some of the tiniest labels in the Sloane Herbarium.  Besides the normal labels with species information, in some cases each specimen—and there were often several on a page—had a tiny dot of paper with a cipher he used.  In other cases, ciphers were affixed to the sheets.  Scott has been able to decode many of them and found that they often cite from whom Courten received the specimens or the geographic locations where they were collected.  He was apparently secretive in part because he was hounded by creditors, but he may also have found that this shorthand saved space and time. 

Scott is not the only one who has been finding interesting items in the Sloane collection.  The NHM botanist Sandy Knapp posted about pages of blighted leaves she saw along with Mark Carine, the NHM curator responsible for the Sloane collection and a major investigator for the Sloane Lab project (see last post).  This might not seem like an exciting find, but think about it:  an opportunity to study what was obviously a serious infection from centuries ago.  And there are other examples of non-plants that made their way into the volumes.  Scott reported on finding hake egg cases and even a starfish.  I remember reading about a woodpecker scull secreted in one volume (Jarvis, 2014), and there are also a number of cases of insects not infesting sheets after the fact, but purposefully placed.  Mark Carine notes that the insects often seem to be used as decoration and are not labeled.  However, he did post on a page where the insects were labeled and most of the plants weren’t.  In the British Library, one of Sloane’s books on insects has specimens pasted into the relevant pages, suggesting it’s impossible to sort a collection like this into absolute categories. 

The Sloane collection is definitely full of surprises, and I am sure there are more to be unearthed because what one researcher might find uninteresting, might very well tickle the fancy of another.  A page fragment from Thomas Aquinas comes to mind as something that could definitely be valued differently by different scholars.  I’ll close with one specimen I found interesting almost in its nonexistence.  It is a typotype specimen for Anemone thalictroides named by Leonard Plukenet and recognized as a species by Linnaeus.  Brad Scott describes it as “barely existent type specimen” (see photo above). 

Note: Much of the information for this post came from Brad Scott’s Twitter feed @Trichocolea.  I realize that Twitter is now a platform with many issues, to say the least.  However, as a recent Nature article noted (Insall, 2023), scientists have found it a useful way of sharing information and ideas.  I’ve learned so much from Twitter posts like Scott’s and many others, that I am not ready to give up that link.  I remain @flannerm, though I’m also on Mastodon at @flannerm@mastondon.online.


Insall, R. (2023). Science Twitter—Navigating change in science communication. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41580-023-00581-3

Jarvis, C. E., & Cooper, J. H. (2014). Maidstone’s woodpecker – an unexpected bird specimen in the herbarium of Sir Hans Sloane. Archives of Natural History, 41(2), 230–239. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2014.0244