The Daily Dose: Featuring Lisa Smith and the Hunt for Hans Sloane

DailyDose2Welcome to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose–companion to the Fiction Reboot!

The Daily Dose features colleagues in medical history and medical humanities, exploring the intersections of literature, culture, medicine and narrative. Today I am happy to bring you a guest blog from Lisa Smith (also known as the @historybeagle). In addition to her fascinating work on Domestic Medicine, family, health and the household in C18 England and France, she has been the vital force behind a new digital archive. The “Sloane Letters”—an amazing scientific and medical history resource–are now being put into a database for users. Dr. Sloane was a famed physician, scientist and collector, and his letters cover a wide range of topics, such as science, travel, collecting and medicine. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing!

Author Bio

Lisa Smith is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Her interests are gender, family and health, pain, fertility, leaky bodies, and recipes. At the moment, she is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”, co-investigating a project on crowd-sourcing the transcription of recipe books, and developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog, guest blogs at Wonders and Marvels and edits The Recipes Project.

Finding Sloane: An Eighteenth-century Doctor and His Patients (by Lisa Smith)

I’ve spent fifteen years in the company of an elusive man who—until recently—would have been on a list of “100 Greatest People You’ve Never Heard Of”: Hans Sloane. He was a well-known physician and collector in his lifetime, President of the Royal College of Physicians, President of the Royal Society… At his death in 1753, the British government purchased his vast collections and established the British Museum. The British Library holds forty-one volumes of Sloane’s correspondence, a mixture of letters about his medical practice, scientific interests, Royal Society business, and collecting. I first discovered Sloane as a Ph.D. student, while researching patients’ accounts of illness.

While reading the letters, I realised two things. First, Sloane as an individual was really hard to find, as there are few letters in the collection that he or his family members wrote. Second, tracing individual patients and their families was difficult, as the collection is catalogued only by author name. The problem? Patients often didn’t write letters about themselves. Rather, family members (frequently with different surnames), friends, and doctors might ask for advice about a sufferer. I looked primarily at the letters in terms of narrative structure or general patterns in descriptions of pain and illness, but not at individual or family case histories. Also apparent to me was that many letters had blurred categories: someone might, for example, write to Sloane about Royal Society business, mention Sloane’s family, and then ask for medical advice.

For my doctoral thesis, I focused on letters about female patients or by female authors. It was when I came to my book project, looking at the gendering of household health more broadly, that I began to think of a database. I realised that the Sloane letters could be so much more useful if the information was put into a database. Despite the value of the correspondence, relatively few researchers had explored the letters—largely, I believe, because of the difficulty involved in finding anything. A database, however, would make it easier to, for example, trace a patient through letters by other authors, find various instances of particular health problems, or identify Sloane’s intellectual networks. So I developed Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence Online [].

Moving into digital history has been interesting and challenging. I’ve had to start thinking about research as part of a team, especially about work flow: how much time is needed to train student research assistants or to enter data for one manuscript? The project also needs to be planned in a series of clear stages, each with definite outcomes, as research funding may not always be forthcoming. My job as project leader differs, too, from writing a book in that I don’t only focus on research and writing. Instead, I do a lot of administration, whether training and mentoring the research assistants, liaising with technical experts, or establishing connections with related projects. What I enjoy most about working with a team is the constant exchange of ideas. I’ve had a number of spin-off projects from this team work, including a couple co-authored articles in progress and upcoming guest posts on my new blog [].

Digital projects also offer a chance for me to engage undergraduate students in research. One class transcribed some of the Sloane letters, researched the letter-writers, and analysed an aspect of one letter in detail (such as the treatment of an illness or a particular remedy). Another class this term is using crowd-sourcing software to transcribe a seventeenth-century manuscript recipe book, which will be made available publicly online (with their names on it as transcribers) through the Recipes: Food, Magic, Science and Medicine project. The students will be actively contributing to wider scholarship.

The database is by no means complete, although many of the letters covering Sloane’s early career have been entered. This is important since relatively little is known about Sloane, who is often obscured by his collections. To give only one example, Sloane’s success is usually attributed to a powerful patron (Duke of Albemarle) and his trip to Jamaica, but data visualizations of the letters suggest a more complex picture. Sloane studied medicine in Paris and Montpellier, and the friends he made while in France appear in the visualizations as key nodes within Sloane’s international network, connecting him to scholars across Europe. Close readings of the letters within this group indicate the relative strength of the connections and their functions. As the database grows, I will be able to piece together more fragments of Sloane’s life and career, and those of his patients.

A desire for work-life balance has also been at heart of my interest in digital work. The Sloane Letters project allows mobility (important with a transatlantic personal life) as supervision of the team can be done from afar. Thinking of work flow patterns has been helpful in my individual projects by making me be more organised (crucial when balancing multiple projects). Digital history has perhaps most importantly allowed me to blend my research and teaching together in rewarding ways. I haven’t found Sloane yet, but in the meantime, my scholarship has undergone profound changes. Possibly I’ll never find him—but it’s fun looking!


Thank you, Lisa! And if you, reader, are a scholar with interesting ideas to share, please don’t hesitate to contact me at bschillace