On Thursday 10 April 1718 a funeral procession of some splendour wound its short but stately route through the City of London. Exiting Cook’s Hall and turning south, the mourners passed beneath the arch of Aldersgate and into the church of St Anne and St Agnes (some reports alternatively identify nearby St Botolph’s). Here the fashionable clergyman Nicholas Brady was to deliver an oration in memory of the deceased (who had bequeathed 5 guineas for that purpose). Among those holding the pall – not necessarily bearing the casket, it should be noted – was the eminent physician and future President of the Royal Society, Sir Hans Sloane. These obsequies, observed almost exactly three centuries ago, marked the death of James Petiver FRS: a prominent natural historian, professional apothecary, obsessive collector, and relentless social networker.
Petiver was born to a Warwickshire family of the middling sort in the first half of the 1660s. After an education at Rugby grammar school he was indentured to a London apothecary in 1677. Eight years later he set himself up in business at the sign of the White Cross on Aldersgate Street, an address he maintained until his death. Petiver put his home to many purposes: a shop trading in physic and medicines, a semi-public museum of curiosities, a venue for his own research and publication, a sociable resort for friends and colleagues, and the hub of an international correspondence network.
In particular, Petiver tirelessly leveraged influence among the men (and occasionally women) of his epistolary web, enlisting them to acquire natural history knowledge and objects on his behalf from all over the world. Together they covered its known regions, from China to colonial America, and from the Baltic states to the Cape of Good Hope. Petiver’s extant archive of manuscripts at the British Library includes letters received from more than 100 global contacts, while the entomological, molluscan, and botanical collections at the Natural History Museum boast rich seams of Petiveriana mined from four continents. In his many publications (including over 30 papers in the Philosophical Transactions), the vast majority of which were descriptive indexes outlining part of his collections, Petiver rewarded his international correspondents with the prestige of an explicit acknowledgement for their contribution to the empire of natural knowledge.
Despite modest origins, Petiver’s indefatigability in both business and science won him friends in high places, not to mention substantial (although by no means unanimous) professional and intellectual esteem. Under Sloane’s patronage, Petiver was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1695, and was later appointed to positions at the London Charterhouse (1700) and the Apothecaries’ Physic Garden in Chelsea (c. 1705). In tandem with his own collecting meanwhile, Petiver operated on Sloane’s behalf, supplying his friend’s celebrated museum and even travelling to the Netherlands as Sloane’s proxy to attend the auction of Paul Hermann’s cabinet in 1711.
When Petiver died, contemporary newspapers were quick to indicate that Sloane’s interests in commemorating his late acquaintance’s demise were not merely those of personal loss. Within a month the Original Weekly Journal reported that ‘Sir Hans Sloane has lately Purchas’d a choice Collection of the most valuable Rarities, from the East and West Indies’, documenting the accession of Petiver’s specimens – supposedly valued by the physician at £4000 – to his home in Bloomsbury Square.
Such biographical details, considered alongside Petiver’s relatively under-researched manuscripts and the absence of any significant academic appraisal of his achievements, mark out the apothecary as a subject deserving of attention. Without detracting from the attention rightly lavished upon Sloane of late, most notably in James Delbourgo’s wonderful book Collecting the World (2017), the imminent anniversary of Petiver’s death is an opportunity to assess the life and reputation of another assiduous participant in metropolitan scientific networks during the early eighteenth century. This April, 300 years after his death, a one-day conference entitled Remembering James Petiver at the Linnean Society of London aims at just such a target. Contributors will evaluate Petiver’s medical practice, his use of epistolary technology, his network of agents from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean world, his insights (and oversights) as a botanist and entomologist, his accumulation of natural historical specimens, and his output of published writings and illustrated catalogues.
James Petiver was by no means the most accomplished, genteel, or ground-breaking natural scientist of the long eighteenth century. Both his own physical appearance and the condition of his collections were publicly denigrated more than once, a contemporary satirist unkindly parodying him as Sancho Panza to Sloane’s ‘Philosophick’ Don Quixote. At times Petiver’s letters show that he was petulant, arrogant, and demanding as an acquaintance; but elsewhere he appears jocular, knowledgeable, and fair-minded as a friend. The task of Remembering James Petiver will be to manage these tensions and offer a critical rather than a sentimental appraisal of his achievements. Above all, we will consider Petiver as a remarkable but also quintessential man of his time, whose varied legacy of manuscripts and objects supplies a singular opportunity to examine the complex intersections between medicine, natural history, and sociability in early-modern London and the world beyond.
Dr Richard Coulton is Senior Lecturer at the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary University of London