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Henry Wellcome the salesman

18 November 2008. By Penny Bailey

The sales methods of Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs transformed the marketing of pharmaceuticals.

Innovation was the fuel that drove the growth of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. - and the hallmark of everything the company did. Not surprisingly then, its sales and advertising methods were highly original for their time. As with other Wellcome innovations, such as introducing research laboratories affiliated to the pharmaceutical company, they later became standard features of the industry.

In 1880 however, the drug industry was only just the verge of transforming itself into the powerhouse it is today. And in America, a new breed of travelling salesmen, with Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs among their number, were using the new steam railways to cross vast distances and tout their wares to physicians.

Face-to-face selling

Silas Burroughs introduced this technique of ‘detailing physicians’ - face-to-face visits to doctors to persuade them to buy products - to Burroughs Wellcome & Co. in London. He also undertook a lengthy world tour from 1881 to 1884, forming the personal contacts that later made it possible to open subsidiary offices across the globe.

Today the practice is universal among pharmaceutical companies, who employ specialised sales representatives to establish strong relationships with doctors, hospitals and other members of the medical profession.

But 130 years ago, the relationship between the medical community and druggists was poor. Physicians were suspicious of manufacturing chemists - with good reason, since few of the medicines of the day were effective (although the discovery of penicillin was not far around the corner). Both Burroughs and Wellcome recognised the need for respectability in the eyes of the doctors who prescribed their products.

To this end, although they advertised heavily in the press, they did so only in medical journals and trade magazines. The creation of the Physiological and Chemical Research Laboratories further underscored their scientific credentials.

And the freedom Wellcome gave his researchers to publish without company supervision was of key importance since it both attracted good scientists and ensured Burroughs Wellcome & Co. received frequent mentions in medical literature - again enhancing the company’s credibility.


In 1884 Wellcome registered the trademark ‘Tabloid’ to denote Burroughs Wellcome & Co.’s compressed medicines - and the name became synonymous with the unique quality and precise measurements of the company’s products.

Wellcome and Burroughs further displayed their flair for publicity by offering medicine chests packed with ‘Tabloid’ medicines to famous people of the day - a precursor of today’s celebrity endorsements. The perfect gift for explorers, missionaries, mountaineers and pioneer aviators, Wellcome’s light, transportable medicine chests were carried to the North and South Poles, to Everest and to Africa. They were also presented to royalty, prime ministers and presidents, including Kings Edward VII and George V, Gladstone and President Roosevelt.


Lavish hospitality was another means Wellcome used to raise his company’s profile. The sumptuous banquets he laid on for important scientific and international conferences were legendary, and the elegance and style of these events became associated with the firm’s products. Guests at the Thanksgiving Day banquet of the American Society in London in 1896, for example, all received a leather-bound volume containing a souvenir menu and an illustrated history of the discovery of America.

Wellcome further displayed his gift for showmanship by laying on spectacular exhibitions at trade shows, once introducing a tank of live cod and a sheep to a meeting of the British Medical Association.

Meanwhile, he kept pace with the growth of visual advertising by designing the company's distinctive unicorn emblem, and its sleek head offices in Snow Hill (in London’s financial centre). The modern, airy design of the offices won praise from London critics.

The importance Wellcome placed on publicity is reflected in his will of 1932, in which he wrote: "It is my special desire that there should be no material reduction in the proportional expenditure for publicity and other forms of propaganda of the several organisations, as I wish my trustees and the directors continuously to develop and increase the output and sale of the products of the industrial organisations of the Foundation throughout the world. The consistent pursuance of this policy will ultimately result in greatly increased profits."

Display of products by Burroughs Wellcome & Co., at the International Medical and Sanitary Exhibition, London, 1881.
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