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Hans Sloane and France

Sir Hans Sloane and France


André J. Fabre                                                           March 24, 2010 20 h

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) always had a strong inclination for France : hardly 23 years old, in 1683 he decided, after 4 years of medical studies, to cross the Channel and, in 1683, arrived in France to study anatomy, medicine and botany. In Paris, he met Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, famed physician and botanist from Montpellier and Joseph Guichard du Verney physician and anatomist from Avignon.

Sloane, as protestant, could not obtain his medical degree in Paris, he had to go to Orange, a Calvinist enclave in the South of France.

Later he came to Montpellier, an important commercial and educational centre in its time, with a famous Medical School, first in France to have created a Botanical Garden of medicinal plants. Students came there from all over Europe : Francois Rabelais, Leonhart Fuchs, Guillaume Rondelet, Charles de l'Ecluse and Pierre Richer de Belleval. Celebrated Medicine Professors were teaching there, among them, Pierre Chirac, Professor of anatomy and medicine and Pierre Magnol Professor of Botany and Director of the Royal Botanic Garden. In those days, botany and medicine were inseparable. Very likely; Sloane found there his vocation to become botanist and also naturalist.

When Sloane returns to England, In 1684, he brings with him from Montpellier many rare botanical specimens, gifts from his French friends.

Sloane's Friends and Correspondents 

French Botanists

Joseph Pitton deTournefort (1656–1708)

Tournefort, the famed French botanist, sent in 1694 to Hans Sloane his main work : "Botanical Elements, or Method for Identifying Plants) (Institutiones rei herbariae) bringing a clear distinction between genus and species. Tournefort's method allowed classification of 700 plant species into 700 genera.

 When Sloane came back from his Jamaican tour, in 1689, Tournefort sent a letter loaded with méridional enthusiasm : "If I had an opportunity, I would send you some trifles that I picked up in Spain and Portugal but this is little indeed compared with the treasures you brought from America and I am ashamed to mention my works ".

Tournefort, after some dissensions about classification with his British rival, John Ray, naturalist and predecessor of Carl Linnaeus, had to send in 1698 one of his students, Andre Gundelsheimer to London to relieve the tensions.

Sloane showed high abilities as diplomat, sonly reconciliating both parties. Tournefort had the highest admiration for Sloane : he sent him, in 1698, an English translation from  Martyn of one of his most celebrated books : "Medical Use of the Plants growing around Paris ". Shortly before his death, Tournefort sent, in 1708, a last letter to Sloane to bring him "his friendliest thoughts".

 Pierre Chirac (1650-1732)

Chirac was First Physician of Louis XV. He had been in  early childhood, due to priesthood but was spotted in 1678, by Michel Chicoyneau, Chancellor of Montpellier University, and persuaded to start medicine studies. In 1682, Chirac became Professor in Medicine, with a great popularity among students. He started very soon a medical practice but in 1692, was appointed by Marechal de Noailles Head Physician of the  Roussillon Army. After that, Chirac came to Paris to become, in 1715, First Physician of the Regent Duke of Orleans. During his long career, Chirac had many contacts with his British Colleagues, and mainly, after 1684 as Sloane's regular correspondent.

 Pierre Magnol (1638-1715)

Magnol was Professor of Botany, Director of the Royal Botanic Garden of Montpellier. In Montpellier, Sloane learnt the main botanical schemes of classification proposed by  Magnol : a very innovative concept of "natural" classification, based on the common features of plants.

 Claude-Joseph Geoffroy the Younger (1685-1752)

Geoffroy came to England in 1698 as Physician of the Comte de Tallard, French ambassador to England, In London, he met Hans Sloane who helped him, in 1715, to become Fellow of the Royal Society.

 Charles Plumier (1646-1704)

Plumier was a priest of the Order of Minims. Devoted to mathematics, he was an excellent draughtsman, botanist and, mostly great traveler. Plumier was appointed Royal Botanist and sent, in 1693, by Louis XIV , in botanical mission to the Antilles and Central America. Sloane regarded  Plumier as one of the leading botanists of his time and Linnaeus proposed in his honor the genus name Plumiera to a magnificent tropical tree.

 French Physicists 

Étienne-François Geoffroy (1672 1731)

Geoffroy the Elder,  elder brother of Claude-Joseph, reported in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (February 1699) "A way to make two clear flammable spirituous liquors, which differ very little in taste and smell, and being mixed together, do give a thin flesh color, without either sensitive fermentation or alteration". He presented the two substances at a meeting of the Royal Society and there reproduced successfully the first set of experiments. In 1698, he also sent a letter to Hans Sloane relative to the mineral waters of Saint-Amand, and the results of chemical operations conducted to determine their composition and medicinal properties. Etienne-Francois Geoffroy received, on May 30, 1709, a letter from Sloane reporting an demonstration performed, in presence of Isaac Newton, by Francis Hauksbee scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society of an electrostatic generator, in fact, a remote ancestor of neon lamps...

 Francois de Bremond

De Bremond under the supervision of Hans Sloane gave an English translation of the works presented at the Royal Society by Stephen Gray, dyer and amateur astronomer, the first experimenter on electricity and electrostatic repulsion. Bremond had written in 1739 to the Abbott Jean-Paul Bignon : "This work brings me in condition to inform all scholars of France of the brilliant state of Science in England… and no one appreciates more than myself the utility of this company. "

 Charles François de Cisternay du Fay (1698 –1739)

Du Fay was chemist and superintendent of the Royal Gardens of France. He reported in the Philosophical Transactions (December, 1733) his works on "vitreous and resinous electricities" (i.e. positive and negative charge).

Contemporary figures of XVIIIth Century

 Hans Sloane led a major role in the scientific Community of his time : all along his century, French scholars kept constantly referring to his works. Several examples can be given :

Buffon refers in his Histoire naturelle (I.14) to Sloane's works on quardupedes and on a bird called Hocco (XVII. 382).

Condorcet learnt from a letter of Hans Sloane that bones of young animals fed on madder get inside "a red color" (1775) .

Diderot in his Encyclopédie (VIII. 771) commenting the term "inoculation" (cow pox) refers to the authority of the "Chevalier Hans Sloane".

Fontenelle In 1727, commenting a memoir sent by Hans Sloane to Académie des sciences on the discoveries in Siberia of mammoths bones, replied with several letters (1731-1733)

Lamarck in his Encyclopédie méthodique (Botanique, vol. 4, I), refers to Hans Sloane works about Pancratium Caribaeum

Sauveur-François Morand reports in 1729 a visit to the celebrated  Cabinet and the Antiquarian collections of the Castle of Chelsea. He left a "Narrative of a travel made in England in name of the Academy of Sciences to develop research on the techniques of cystotomy proposed by Mr. Cheselden, followed by the description of Cabinet of Mr. Sloane ".

Pierre de Vigny, student and pupil of Robert de Cotte, exposed to Hans Sloane, during a visit in London in 1741-1742, his ideas on the genius of each nation in art and a theory of climate applied to architecture.

Jean-Philippe Rameau sent in 1737 a letter to the President of the Royal Society with a copy of his "Treatise on Harmonic Generation"

Father St. Pierre sent to Sloane on April 11, 1714 a letter to propose a new system of arbitration between European sovereigns to ensure an "eternal peace"…

Voltaire sent his work "Epic Poetries of all ages" to Sloane with this dedication " To Sir Hans Sloane from Voltaire his obedient servant".

Scientific Academies

Royal Society : in 1727 Sloane succeeded as President to Isaac Newton, head-publisher for many years of The Philosophical Transactions. Thus he could introduce to England many French scientist as Geoffroy, Bernard de Jussieu, Maupertuis, Sauveur Francois Morand, Montesquieu, Fontenelle and Jean-Paul Bignon.

French Académie des sciences : the Académie was founded in 1666 by Louis XIV at the suggestion of  Colbert, to encourage and protect scientific researches. Sloane was elected correspondent of Jacques Cassini in 1699, then Foreign Associate in 1709. Same year, he was elected full member, with special permission from the Queen (1709 being the year of the battle of Malplaquet…). When Sloane dies in 1753. Stephen Hales, famed physiologist and chemist of his time, gives the eulogy of his predecessor.

During his many years as President, Sloane, with great perseverance, developed the links between the Royal Society and the Académie des science. Some of many examples:

Tournefort, in March 1698 sends a letter to Sloane explaining that he about to achieve his book on "History of plants born around Paris" and proposes to send him a copy via Lister near, at that time, to leave Paris.

Paul Bignon was a French ecclesiastic, statesman, writer, preacher and librarian to Louis XIVth, several times President of the Académie des sciences. We have a letter sent in 1740 by Hans Sloane to Paul Bignon to express his doubts on the "petrification" theories of John Beaumont. This correspondence between Hans Sloane and Abbott Bignon brings more evidence of the powerful links during the first half of XVIIIth century, in Anglo-French intellectual life

Thus, Hans Sloane, had a major role in the creation of most medical and scientific institutions of his time : the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences founded in 1739 by Carl Linnaeus, the Russian Academy, where Sloane was elected in 1725, founded in 1724 by Peter the Great, the Academy of Science of Berlin (1712) and the Academia Naturae Curiosorum (Leopoldina) founded by  the Emperor of Holy Roman Empire, Leopold I, in 1677.


During all his lengthy career Sloane kept a keen interest for the Sciences of Nature : we need only look at the full title of the report of his Jamaican travel "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".

Indeed, in the Age of Enlightenment, scholars, all over Europe, have been dedicated to the idea of a coherent but informal network of knowledge, Sloane was one of them, a man of immense culture keenly interested in Science.


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Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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