11 November 2008. By Penny Bailey
Although much more has been written about Henry Wellcome, without his charismatic, energetic - and wealthy - partner, Silas Burroughs, the Wellcome Trust would never have existed.
Burroughs, a former college friend of Wellcome’s from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacym, came to England ahead of Henry Wellcome in 1878. He wrote to Wellcome from London inviting him to join him there to take advantage of a unique business opportunity.
Burroughs was the European agent for John Wyeth & Brother, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer in Philadelphia. He also ran his own business selling medical supplies, nutritional supplements, soap, toiletries and shoe-blacking.
Wyeth specialised in “compressed medicine tablets”, and Burroughs had the rights to sell these tablets in any country except America. He wanted to promote them on other international markets, and needed a partner to hold the fort in London.
“I think we would make a pretty lively team in the pharmaceutical line.” Silas Mainville Burroughs.
Burroughs came from a wealthy family, and offered to provide the capital to found a company selling these compressed tablets in England. Wellcome was strapped for cash: although he was earning good money with McKesson & Robins, he was still supporting his family in Garden City. He could only raise £400 and had to borrow from Burroughs in order to purchase his share of the partnership. The latter was willing to offset his lack of capital against the fact that, before leaving New York, Wellcome obtained international selling rights for other American drugs.
Like Wellcome, Burroughs had honed his sales skills on the road as a travelling salesman. He was anxious to travel in search of new markets, and set off on a worldwide tour shortly after the company was formed in 1880.
Burroughs’ extraordinary gift as a salesman was critical to the success of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. His open, easy manner, warmth and lively humour enabled him to make close friends in every corner of the world and from every social sphere: he was as much at home with the wealthy and influential as with a group of working men. This great personal charm helped him establish a worldwide network of contacts on his global tour, and laid the foundations for the company's foreign markets.
In some ways Burroughs was a curious mix of contradictions. Alongside his keen business acumen and undoubted pleasure in making a sale, he held strict religious convictions: he was a teetotaller and a Presbyterian, regularly attending lunchtime religious services at the City Temple, close to the company headquarters by Holborn Viaduct.
Political and moral beliefs
Left: A pamphlet by Silas Burroughs, written for an International Peace Conference in Chicago, which argued the case for Free Trade and for a single tax on property.
Burroughs also held radically liberal political beliefs. He wanted the taxation system changed so that there was a single tax only on land, believing that this would be fairer for individual citizens and encourage business. And he argued for free railway travel to lessen the congestion and unhealthiness of town life.
On top of his hectic life as a travelling businessman, husband and father of three children, Burroughs found time to chair the Dartford Radical and Liberal Association, was a committee member of the Tenant Tradesmen’s National Union, and belonged to several political pressure groups including the City Liberal and the United Democratic clubs. He was the driving force and chief fundraiser for the Livingstone Cottage Hospital in Dartford - the site of his firm’s factory - which still has a plaque in his honour. Had he not died when he did, it is quite possible that he would have stood for Parliament.
In line with these strong political and moral beliefs, Burroughs was a generous employer. He and Wellcome introduced an eight-hour day and a profit-sharing system for the employees of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, supplied attractive gardens for their recreational use, and arranged numerous sports and social activities to entertain them. On top of this, Burroughs bequeathed a twenty-fourth of his estate to his employees in his will. His generosity was legendary, although he was sometimes taken in by people with ulterior motives, who claimed to share his religious or political opinions: on his death promissory notes and IOUs in his possession were said to amount to more than £7000.
Despite the success of the company, Burroughs’ and Wellcome’s business relationship deteriorated rapidly. The two men had very different personalities. Burroughs was a charming extrovert, loved by his staff, whereas they held Wellcome in awe and respect. Wellcome was also more ambitious, and fell out with Burroughs over his wish to increase his stake in the company.
Wellcome shared many of his partner’s progressive beliefs, but was a more cautious man. In many ways, his talents ideally complemented those of Burroughs. Cracks began to appear in the friendship as early as 1882, and were exacerbated over a letter Wellcome wrote questioning Burroughs’ intention to marry his fiancée, Olive Chase.
Their differences, especially fuelled by Burroughs’ desire to allow staff shared rights in the company, not simply profit-sharing, increased the tensions. By the 1890s they were no longer on speaking terms. In 1889, Silas Burroughs served a writ on Wellcome for dissolution of the partnership, on the grounds of “neglect of the firm’s interests.” However, the judge ruled, “I don’t see any grounds for dissolution.”
The partnership agreement was in the process of being renegotiated when Burroughs joined his sister in Monte Carlo in December 1894, supposedly to relax and recover from a severe cold. However the restless energy that had helped him build a globally successful pharmaceutical company in just a few years drove him to keep pushing his body to the limits. After an exhausting cycling trip along the Riviera, Burroughs developed pneumonia and died suddenly on 6 February 1895 at the age of only 48, leaving a wife and three children.
His wife, Olive, died ten years later and was buried beside him and, in time, their shared grave in the cemetery of Monte Carlo at Boulevard Charles III, perched on the hillside on the edge of town at Fontvielle, was forgotten.
Wellcome’s reaction to Burroughs’ death was relief: “By the rule of Fate, I have become sole proprietor of this great business into which I have put my heart and the best years of my life. I feel even with the added responsibility, in one sense, a wonderful relief from the strain of worry that has weighted me down so long.”
The renegotiation of the partnership had not been completed - if it had been, the company would probably have been split into two firms - and on her husband’s death Olive Burroughs was obliged to sell Wellcome her interest in the company. After some aggravation (and litigation), Wellcome gained full control of the company three years later in 1898. From that time until the outbreak of World War I under his leadership Burroughs Wellcome & Co. underwent a period of massive global expansion.
Grave in Monte Carlo
Over 100 years after Burroughs death, in 1998 the Wellcome Library acquired Burroughs’ personal papers from his family. Among them, Julia Sheppard, then Head of Special Collections in the Library, discovered a photograph of his grave in the cemetery of Monte Carlo. While taking a sabbatical at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL to research and write a biography of Burroughs, she decided to visit his grave.
She was just in time: on her arrival in Monte Carlo, Julia found that the cemetery authorities were about to replace the grave. (In parts of Europe, if a grave is over 100 years old and has been considered abandoned, it can be re-used.) The Wellcome Trust entered into correspondence with the cemetery authorities and agreed to finance the necessary repairs to the grave in order to assure its preservation. The grave has been repaired, and visitors to the cemetery can now pay their respects to a fascinating and charismatic man.