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Henry Wellcome’s pharmaceutical career – Members’ lunch review

The Tabloid First March ad, showing possible excursions from aroudn the British Empire.

8 Nov 2016

On 4 November 2016, Ross MacFarlane, Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library, gave an engaging talk about the Henry Wellcome’s career at the SCI Members’ lunch and lecture. He focused on Wellcome’s lesser known work in pharmaceuticals while demonstrating how his business career fed into the collecting tendency that he would later become famous for.

Wellcome was born in Minnesota, an area that was then on the American frontier. As a child, MacFarlane noted, Wellcome found a Neolithic arrowhead and was told about how advanced a piece of equipment it was for its time. The family moved and became involved in his uncle Jacob’s pharmacy. It seems reasonable to infer that these two early events greatly influenced Wellcome’s later life.

By the age of 16, Wellcome was already working on his own pharmaceutical ‘inventions’ and displaying the interest in advertising that would he later pursue to great effect – advertising ‘magic ink’ for sale. On graduating from Boston, he began to work as a pharmaceutical salesman but refused to give up his academic leanings and published nine articles in journals throughout the 1970s to build up his reputation. One such article, on his travels to Ecuador to find quinine in the Cinchona forests, was widely read. Published first in 1879 in the Proceedings of the American Pharmaceutical Association and then reprinted in the Pharmaceutical Journal of Great Britain, it established his name among his pharmaceutical peers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The next year, Wellcome moved to London to set up a business with his university friend Silas Burroughs – a business that did very well, very quickly. MacFarlane noted the many practices the two Americans espoused that were unusual in the UK, including providing medication in tablet form and giving out free samples to doctors. Their glamorous headquarters in Farringdon and the flamboyant exhibits at trade fairs cemented a well-deserved reputation for business excellence.

Wellcome was also keen to establish a reputation for research excellence. He became personally well-known for his knowledge of tropical medicine and set up two pharmaceutical research centres that would lead to better medicines, including antitoxins for tetanus, diphtheria, and gas gangrene. Wellcome-funded scientists would also, in his lifetime, isolate histamine and standardise insulin, among other medicines. It was noted, however, that some of their products wouldn't pass muster today – particularly a drug to improve sporting performance that numbered cocaine and caffeine in its ingredients.

Although a modern approach to marketing played a large role in the success of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co, the focus of the two men on hiring the best talent available and on developing a reputation for precision and research also played a significant role.

In 1895, Burroughs died unexpectedly. The business continued to do well, and the economic security this provided allowed Wellcome to devote increasing amounts of time to collecting artefacts from medical history – the practice for which he would later become famous.

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