The life of a tabloid chemist

Henry Wellcome
February 17, 1995

Though it was Silas Burroughs who gave Henry Wellcome an opportunity to become a rich man - by offering him a junior partnership in a firm that had found a British market for "compressed medicine tablets" made in Philadelphia - it was the junior partner who made Burroughs Wellcome world famous, and he alone who created the Wellcome Foundation and the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Henry died nearly 60 years ago and the Wellcome Foundation is still disbursing more than £100 million a year on behalf of British medical and scientific research. So it came as a great surprise to learn - from the dust cover of the book under review - that "Robert Rhodes James, at the request of the Wellcome Trust, has now related for the first time the remarkable life of this gregarious, out-going and ambitious American".

The emphasis is mine, for I naturally expected the biography to have at least one antecedent. Realising my mistake, I searched inside the book for an explanation but all I found was: "(Wellcome's) Trustees commissioned a biography of him by Mr. A. W. J. Haggis, of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, whose first draft was delivered in 1942. It was a worthy and very lengthy production, but the Trustees were dissatisfied and decided against publication. However, his typescript has been made available to authors and historians. The Wellcome Foundation and the Wellcome Trust have published two brief biographies of Wellcome, and other studies of real merit and interest, but with a limited readership." There had clearly been no attempt to find a successor to Haggis, and the long gap between Wellcome's death on July 25, 1936 and the publication date of the present biography remains a mystery.

The high repute of Burroughs Wellcome and Co. was the result of unremitting work by a man who combined high levels of integrity, ambition and intelligence with a flare for well planned publicity, and a determination to be always in the good books of the medical profession. Even as a young man, Wellcome was eager to accept responsibility for bold enterprises and, as a provider of optimal working conditions, he was unrivalled.

The sound finances of the company founded in 1880 owed much to Wellcome's well designed advertisements, museum-like presentations of high grade pharmaceutical products in key places, and his famous travelling medicine chests. But what made the firm unique was clearly the result of Wellcome having a keen eye for scientific merit and creating well equipped laboratories for experienced research workers who were then given complete freedom of expression. This freedom to publish without company supervision was of key importance since it both attracted good scientists and ensured frequent mention of Burroughs Wellcome products in the medical and scientific literature.

In 1880 only Burroughs, who was seven years older than Wellcome, had any capital. The latter was the younger son of a Seventh Day Adventist who, at the time of Henry's birth in 1853, was working a small farm in Maine. But failure of a potato crop led to the family moving - by covered wagon - to the newly created state of Minnesota when Henry was eight. A brother of Henry's father had, as a young doctor, already made the same journey, and he now had an expanding practice and a drug store in what is described by James as "a small village inappropriately called Garden City".

Henry's father, who worked in his brother's drug store before becoming a minister of the Adventist Church, remained a poor man. But he and the doctor were such good friends that the two boys thoroughly enjoyed themselves in their new setting. A log cabin school, with barely 50 pupils, provided their only formal education. But they also learnt to ride, shoot and explore, by canoe, lakes and rivers. Henry was a voracious reader and, through the father of a school friend, he heard about the rapidly expanding pharmaceutical industry and decided to make this his goal. He left school when he was 13 and then worked in his uncle's store. But immediately after his 17th birthday he left for the much larger city of Rochester with little more in his pocket than this oddly worded testimonial: "To all whom it may concern be it known that Henry S. Wellcome a young and worthy young man is about to leave our town for the East, and we would further say that he is trustworthy in every respect. And is well qualified to be a clerk. As respects business ability and Honesty. Honest as the day is long, and no Bad habits of Character about him."

Henry first worked as a prescription clerk in a firm of pharmaceutical chemists but he soon moved to Philadelphia, where he attended evening classes and acquired a college degree in pharmacy. From there he went to New York where he became a very successful salesman for a large pharmaceutical firm. He also published papers in pharmacy journals and acquired a taste for travelling which he never lost. He was now earning good money, but he was also supporting the family left in Garden City. So when it came to paying his share of a partnership, he could only raise £400 in cash and had to borrow, at high interest, from Burroughs.

Burroughs was the London representative of a Philadelphia firm which specialised in "compressed medicine tablets". He had the right to sell these tablets in any country except America and was anxious to travel in search of new markets. He therefore needed a partner and could afford to offset his partner's lack of capital against the fact that, before leaving New York, Wellcome had obtained similar selling rights for other American drugs.

With Burroughs abroad most of the time before 1886, it was possible for Wellcome to develop both his marketing genius and other social and scientific interests. He was soon collecting rare medical books and artefacts, and making friends in high places by joining the right clubs, giving generous support to good causes and providing the lavish banquets which helped to make "Burroughs Wellcome" a household name. On one such occasion he presented the explorer, Henry Stanley, with "nine beautiful Chests replete with every medicament necessary to combat the epidemic disease peculiar to Africa", and he soon numbered among his friends such famous persons as Joseph Lister, Patrick Manson and Oscar Wilde.

By 1882 Wellcome had managed to buy the machinery needed for making compressed medicine tablets and obtain the right to sell, in Britain, both his own and imported tablets. He also kept rival firms at bay by inventing the word "tabloid" and registering it as a comprehensive name for all Burroughs Wellcome products. The two partners often quarrelled but after Burroughs's death, in 1895, Wellcome had sole charge of a highly successful and rapidly expanding firm. He soon became a millionaire and before long he could boast that he had rendered good service to his adopted country during the Boer War and the Kaiser's War, and had been a means of several British scientists becoming Nobel laureates.

Wellcome's private life was less successful. A relatively late marriage to a much younger woman ended in divorce, and dyslectic problems prevented his only son from sharing his business and scientific interests. By the time he was 50, Wellcome was no longer "gregarious and outgoing". But he continued to take an interest in African affairs and, when Lord Kitchener appealed for funds to found a college in Khartoum, Wellcome offered "to donate a complete medical equipment and stock for the Dispensary in connection with the College". The principal outcome of this gesture was the famous Wellcome Tropical Research Institute (since destroyed by the Sudanese government), but it also led to Wellcome visiting a nearby archaeological dig where he conceived the idea that it only needed his help to reveal a prehistoric site of great antiquity. This hunch proved wrong, but not before Wellcome had sent to Britain boatloads of artefacts deemed to be of little value by archaeologists. Similar activities in Palestine, where he was content to work under the direction of experts, were more successful, but by this time Wellcome was suffering from cancer and had less than four years to live. His funeral service was held at Golders Green Crematorium, and it was not until much later (1987) that his ashes were buried in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral, and a plaque to his memory placed beside one for Alexander Fleming.

In a scholarly book, packed full of interesting anecdotes, Rhodes James has displayed many sides of Wellcome's intriguing personality. But it is shocking to discover that a man who did so much for British scientists (and so much for Britain in time of need) was not only overlooked by two generations of biographers, but was over 70 before he was given an honorary degree by any British university, and had to wait even longer before receiving a knighthood.

Alice Stewart is senior research fellow, department of epidemiology, University of Birmingham.

Henry Wellcome

Author - Robert Rhodes James
ISBN - 0 340 60617 7
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 422

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