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Henry Wellcome's tropical medicine laboratories

9 December 2008. By Penny Bailey

Henry Wellcome pioneered organised research of African tropical diseases, and founded laboratories in London and the Sudan.

Henry Wellcome’s first experience of tropical disease came from his travels in the late 1870s in the tropical rainforests of Ecuador, where malaria was rife among the indigenous Indians - and worsened by poor nutrition. Wellcome was looking for new sources of cinchona bark, the source of quinine, which at that time was the only available treatment for malaria.

Over 20 years later, he had another chance to witness tropical disease first hand - again exacerbated by poor hygiene and nutrition. During the winter of 1900-1901, he joined one of the first parties of European civilians to visit the Sudan after Lord Kitchener’s 1898 victory against the Madhi at Omdurman.

As he sailed up the Nile from Egypt, Wellcome was horrified by what he saw along its banks. The country was devastated by war, people lived in unclean mud huts, and malaria, smallpox and famine seemed almost endemic. He believed scientific research could help to improve both the hygiene and the health of the Sudanese people.

Arriving in Khartoum he met Sir Reginald Wingate, the Governor General of Sudan, who showed him plans for the Gordon Memorial College, being built in memory of the previous governor. Wellcome offered to donate complete state-of-the-art equipment for research laboratories at the college, provided that the Sudanese authorities would contribute to their upkeep.

He wrote, “one thing that impressed me greatly when I was at Khartoum was the possibility of making that city as healthy as New York, London or any other place.”

During this trip, Wellcome also met and was captivated by Syrie Barnado. They were married a few months later in London.

Gordon Memorial College, Khartoum, site of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories.

Research in Sudan

The Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories opened in 1902. Wellcome helped select their first director, Dr Andrew Balfour, in 1903 and asked him to concentrate on eradicating malaria.

Balfour set up a task force to drain and clear the mosquito breeding grounds. His staff also organised Khartoum’s health service, and created a clean water and sanitary system for the whole city. As a result, the death rate from malaria in and around Khartoum was cut by 90 per cent and - true to Wellcome’s wishes - the city became the healthiest on the African continent.

Observing that the Nile was the most efficient channel of communication in Sudan, in 1907 Henry Wellcome provided a floating laboratory - equipped to the same high standard as the Tropical Research Laboratories in Khartoum - to help extend research activity to other parts of Sudan.

“With its central location, it occurred to me that one could reach out in various directions from Khartoum, as a base, and collect materials and specimens for scientific investigation."

The boat could be towed along the river, carrying medical teams into regions that would otherwise be inaccessible. Researchers on the boat could investigate which diseases were prevalent in different parts of the country, and collect and analyse the specimens locally without having to carry them back to Khartoum.

Steamship Culex and floating laboratory on the Nile, 1911.


In 1910, the year Wellcome became a British citizen, the US Government asked him to visit the Panama Canal Zone to report on the expensive health programme work being carried out by the local supervisor, Colonel William Gorgas.

Gorgas took Wellcome on long canoe trips through the mosquito-infested Panama swamps to show him the challenges his staff faced. Wellcome was impressed by his strategies to destroy mosquito breeding grounds, as a result of which cases of malaria and yellow fever in the Canal Zone were a fraction of what they had been five years previously.

He reported back to the US government that Gorgas’ work "reflects great credit and honor on American medical and sanitary science,” and as a result funding for sanitation in the area was increased.

Despite its success on a professional level, this expedition wrecked Wellcome’s already strained marriage. After an argument, Syrie left Panama with a friend, and she and Wellcome never saw one another again.

Bureau of Scientific Research

In 1912 Wellcome handed the running of the Tropical Research Laboratories in Khartoum over to the Sudanese government. Their Director, Andrew Balfour, whose health had suffered in the harsh African climate, returned to London to direct the newly founded Wellcome Bureau of Scientific Research.

Right: The Wellcome Bureau of Scientific Research was established in 1913, and located at 10 Henrietta Street (now Place), London W1. In 1932 the Bureau moved headquarters to the newly established Wellcome Research Institution at 183 Euston Road.

The Bureau was Wellcome’s attempt to bring the different activities of the Wellcome Physiological, Chemical and Tropical Research Laboratories together in one organisation, 12 years before he created the Wellcome Foundation Ltd.

He intended the Bureau to oversee the running of his Chemical and Physiological Research Laboratories - as well as carrying out its own research specifically into tropical medicine - and he made Balfour Director-in-Chief of all his laboratories. The decision offended Henry Dale and Frederick Power, who were Directors of the Physiological and Chemical Research Laboratories respectively at the time, and they both resigned shortly afterwards - a great loss to Wellcome and his laboratories.

As a teaching resource to support the tropical medicine research at the Bureau, Balfour began to create a museum of specimens, images, artefacts and other material illustrating or related to exotic diseases called the Wellcome Museum of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (it was renamed the Wellcome Museum of Medical Science in 1923).

The collection eventually developed into a programme of distance learning for use in low- and middle-income countries. The renamed Tropical Medicine Resource (later PG-International Health) produced CD-ROMs focusing on tropical diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis, leprosy and tuberculosis as teaching aids for medical workers in over a hundred countries.

A number of important studies into tropical diseases were carried out at the Bureau of Scientific Research, including studies of sleeping sickness and the development of an effective vaccine against yellow fever.

The Bureau was eventually integrated with the Physiological and Chemical Laboratories under the joint umbrella of the Wellcome Research Laboratories. These moved to Beckenham, Kent, after World War II, becoming the research and development arm of Wellcome plc after the 1986 sale share.

Today the Wellcome Trust continues to fund research into diseases affecting low- and middle-income countries - in particular malaria and HIV - supporting world-class research centres in South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Vietnam and Thailand.

Staff at the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory, Khartoum. Wellcome is in the centre of the picture (with his white pith helmet on his lap). Andrew Balfour is seated on Wellcome’s right hand side. c.1910.
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