Lisa W. Smith

Researcher’s profile

 

Abstract

Sir Hans Sloane’s “Earnest Desire to Be Useful”

In his Account of a Most Efficacious Medicine for Soreness, Weakness, and Several Other Distempers of the Eyes (1745), Sir Hans Sloane summarised what he believed to be the point of his career: “through an earnest Desire to be useful in my Profession, the Practice of Physic, to which I was led by a strong natural Inclination, I was always very attentive to Matters of Fact, and the real Cures that fell under my Observation”. It could be easy to discount Sloane’s assertion as self-aggrandizing, but it deserves to be taken seriously: Sloane is a challenging subject to research. Despite the vastness of his collection of books, botanical samples, correspondence, curiosities, and manuscripts, little remains to tell us much about Sloane directly. The correspondence that Sloane kept, for example, was one-sided, his own letters dispersed in family papers and archives across the world. Sloane as an individual seems to have been effaced by his work, but perhaps this was a deliberate statement: that his identity was his life-long work of collecting, curing, and mediating. We are left to examine Sloane by his acts more than his words.

The spirit of harnessing scientific investigation to social utilitarianism emerged in many of Sloane’s activities, ranging from editing the Philosophical Transactions to charitable medical activities. The connection, however, was clearest in Sloane’s work on behalf of the nation as a Court physician. In the 1720s, the British government involved itself in protecting the health of its citizens, fearing at first widespread outbreaks of the plague and smallpox. At the time, Sloane was not only a court physician, but Vice-President of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Physicians; Sloane was particularly well-placed to take a leading role in shaping the government’s health policy. Examining Sloane’s promotion of beneficial medical treatments, protection of the nation from contagious diseases, and reformation of pharmaceutical knowledge, I argue that Sloane’s activities as a court physician should be seen within the context of his wider career. Sloane aspired to improve the health of the nation, and his court appointment allowed him to be “useful” on a national scale.

 

 

 

 

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Sir Hans Sloane’s “Earnest Desire to Be Useful”

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