Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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Before resuming our narrative it may be proper to state some particulars respecting the celebrated founder of the British Museum, to whom there has been more than one occasion of alluding in the preceding pages. Sir Hans Sloane was born at Killileagh in Ireland on the 16th April 1660. His father was a Scotchman, who headed a colony which, in the[Pg 163] reign of James I., was planted in the northern part of the sister isle. Having at an early age evinced a decided taste for natural history, he chose the profession of medicine, and after studying four years in London, where he became acquainted with Boyle and Ray, went to Paris, and afterwards to Montpellier, in which latter place he took his degree. At the age of twenty-four he settled in London, and became a Member of the Royal Society. In April 1687, he was made a Fellow of the College of Physicians, and in November following embarked for Jamaica as physician to the Duke of Albemarle, who was appointed governor of the island; but that nobleman having died soon after his arrival, Dr Sloane returned to England after an absence of only fifteen months. In 1693, he was made secretary to the Royal Society, and in the ensuing year named physician to Christ's Hospital; in 1701, he obtained a medical diploma from Oxford, and, in 1708, was elected an Associate of the Academy of Sciences at Paris. In 1716, he was created a baronet by George I., an honour which no medical man had previously obtained, and afterwards was raised to the rank of physician-general to the army. On the accession of George II. he was made physician in ordinary to his Majesty; and on the death of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1727, succeeded that illustrious philosopher in the chair of the Royal Society, which he occupied till 1740, when his advanced age induced him to resign it. He died at Chelsea on the 11th January 1752.

Sir Hans Sloane was a man of the most respectable character, being distinguished not less for his liberality and patriotic zeal, than by his attainments in science. The most important of his works[Pg 164] is the Natural History of Jamaica, of which the first volume appeared in 1707, the second not till 1725. He was a governor of most of the hospitals of the metropolis, to which he left considerable sums. He set on foot the scheme of a dispensary for the poor; gave the Apothecaries' Company a piece of ground for a botanic garden; and on many occasions exerted himself effectually for the public benefit. Such a man is undoubtedly worthy of more honour and admiration than the mere author, who, it may be from the most selfish motives, labours in solitude to enlighten the world and illustrate himself: "The good that men do too often dies with them," and as books are legacies of which the benefit is more extended than that of individual acts of generosity or patriotism, people are ever ready to laud an author, even although they may not clearly see wherein his merit lies; while the truly good, whose lives are a continued scene of beneficence, have but a slight hold on the admiration of posterity. The share which Sir Hans Sloane had in the establishment of the British Museum is the circumstance on which his reputation seems now chiefly to depend. Having made an extensive museum of natural history, medals, books, and manuscripts, he bequeathed it to the public, on condition that £20,000 should be paid to his executors,—a sum far from equal to the value of the collection. In 1753, an act was passed by the legislature for purchasing it and the Harleian manuscripts, as well as for procuring a general repository for their better reception and more convenient use, the Cottonian library included. In this manner commenced the British Museum, which,[Pg 165] by the numerous and extensive additions made to it, has become worthy of the greatest empire of modern times; although, in the department of natural history, it is admitted to be still much inferior to the National Museum of France, and, in several branches of zoology, to be surpassed by many collections in Britain.

Mr Ray, who had now betaken himself to a more sedentary and studious mode of life, began to suffer severely in his health. His Catalogue of English Plants having become scarce, he was solicited by some friends to improve it for a third edition, which he accordingly did; but a difference arising between him and the booksellers, to whom the copyright belonged, he forthwith resolved to publish it in another form. In the mean time, however, to satisfy his friends, he printed his Fasciculus Stirpium Britannicarum, as a substitute for the Catalogue. In 1690, appeared the Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum, which may be considered as the most important work on British plants that has been hitherto written, with the exception of Sir James Smith's English Botany, and its continuation by Dr Hooker. It was farther augmented by him, and reprinted in 1696, together with a description of the Cryptogamic plants, which had hitherto received little attention.

Having thus published many important works on natural history, he resolved to compose another in which he should unite that science with his proper profession of divinity, and accordingly commenced his Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of the Deity,—a performance on which his popular fame now principally rests. When finished he transmitted[Pg 166] it, in March 1690, to his friend Dr Tancred Robinson, who disposed of it agreeably to his directions; so that it made its appearance in the following year. One of his reasons for writing this admirable treatise he expresses in the following words:—"By virtue of my function I suspect myself to be obliged to write something in divinity, having written so much on other subjects; for being not permitted to serve the church with my tongue in preaching, I know not but it may be my duty to serve it with my hand by writing; and I have made choice of this subject, as thinking myself best qualified to treat of it. If what I have now written," he continues, "shall find so favourable acceptance as to encourage me to proceed, God granting life and health, the reader may expect more; if otherwise, I must be content to be laid aside as useless, and satisfy myself in having made this experiment."

The objects of this work, which is entitled The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation, were, 1st, To demonstrate the existence of a Deity; 2dly, To illustrate some of his principal attributes; 3dly, "To stir up and increase in us the affections and habits of admiration, humility, and gratitude." Like many excellent theological treatises of former times, it is now less frequently read than it deserves to be. Happily, however, we have volumes of more recent date, which inculcate the same principles, with perhaps more accuracy of detail in all that relates to science. From a passage in it we learn what was his conception of the true character of a naturalist: "Let it not suffice us," says he, "to be book-learned, to read what others have written, and to take upon trust more falsehood than[Pg 167] truth. But let us ourselves examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with nature as well as books. Let us endeavour to promote and increase this knowledge, and make new discoveries, not so much distrusting our own parts, or despairing of our own abilities, as to think that our industry can add nothing to the invention of our ancestors, or correct any of their mistakes. Let us not think that the bounds of science are fixed like Hercules' pillars, and inscribed with a ne plus ultra. Let us not think we have done when we have learnt what they have delivered to us. The treasures of nature are inexhaustible. Here is employment enough for the vastest parts, the most indefatigable industries, the happiest opportunities, the most prolix and undisturbed vacancies."

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