Science, chocolate and the Royal Society

Hans Sloane's chocolate

The rich history of the Royal Society has a habit of overlapping with that of some of our favourite things. This is a brief look at how the history of chocolate and cocoa in the UK has crossed the path of the Royal Society.

Chocolate was used by the Aztecs not only as a drink but also as a medium of exchange. Cocoa beans were taken to Spain by Columbus in 1502 but the Spaniards kept the drink a secret for nearly a century and it was not until 1657 that an enterprising Frenchman opened a shop in London where chocolate could be bought for making the drink. Originally, it was advertised as being conducive to good health, if not necessarily very palatable. Among those convinced of its beneficial qualities was Sir Hans Sloane.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was President of the Royal Society from 1727 to 1741, and a noted physician, scientist and collector.

In 1687 Sloane took up a position as physician to the governor of Jamaica. During this time he pursued his scientific interests by extensively documenting and classifying the plants and animals around him.

Sloane was unhappy with the taste of the cocoa drink favoured by locals in Jamaica. On his return to England he experimented with mixing milk into the chocolate mixture to make it more palatable. This recipe was passed to local chocolate-makers, who sold "Sir Hans Sloane's Chocolate" as a medicinal and recreational drink.

In 1849 Cadbury Brothers released bars of "Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate" as their first milk drinking chocolate. This was soon followed by milk chocolate bars for eating, the predecessors of today's Dairy Milk.

From 1916-1918 the Royal Society hosted the Food (war) committee.

Their responsibilities included the scientific analysis of foodstuffs and recommendations regarding the dietary needs of the populace.

Rationing was a difficult and carefully thought out process. Each aspect of diet was considered, for example the need for dietary fats. When the traditional sources of dietary fats (such as dairy produce) were running low, other sources needed to be found.

Cocoa and chocolate were discussed in great detail by the committee, as shown by the minutes and papers from the committee. Members of the public and the scientific community often contributed to these discussions, highlighting new resources, or new ways to use existing resources.

Events and exhibitions

We run a programme of regular events, conferences and exhibitions on the history of science for researchers and members of the public.

Audio recordings and video recordings are available for many of our events.

An archive of some of our past exhibitions is also available.