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Henry Wellcome the collector

23 December 2008. By Penny Bailey.

Fascinated by the “art and science of healing throughout the ages”, Henry Wellcome collected books and objects on a colossal scale: by the time of his death, his collection of around 1.5 million items dwarfed those of Europe’s most famous museums.

Henry Wellcome was a voracious collector of items and objects relating to the history of medicine. He had already begun to collect books and objects relating to history and medicine before moving to England in 1880 - in a letter to Silas Burroughs in 1882, he wrote: "I brought my library and museum from America last winter" - but the financial success of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. meant that by the late 1890s he had considerable purchasing power, and his collecting took on a more serious intention.

It became systematic with the appointment of Dr C J S Thompson in 1898. Thompson, pictured left, was to be curator of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, as it was then called (a position he remained in until 1925), and Wellcome was its Director.

Thompson was also the first in a network of commercial buying agents and representatives that Wellcome set up around the world to help him acquire books and objects. In 1909, he recommended that Wellcome employ the multilingual Dr Paira Mall (he spoke and wrote German, French, Italian, Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani, Punjabi, Arabic and Japanese) to buy material for him in Asia and translate ancient Asian medical manuscripts.

After World War I, in 1918 the museum became Wellcome's primary interest. He expanded his network of buying agents, employing dealers all over Europe, and acquisition took place on a business scale.


Wellcome kept a close eye on his agents abroad, expecting them to keep detailed records of what they purchased, where and for how much. He marked up auction catalogues himself to highlight the items that interested him, set limits on the amount of money he was willing to spend and made all the final decisions on whether or not to buy.

Using agents also allowed Wellcome to keep his collecting activity secret: he feared auction houses and dealers would push up their prices if they knew about it. So in a bid to create false trails, he advertised anonymously for historical books and artefacts in newspapers and magazines such as 'Bazaar' and 'Exchange and Mart', and used junior members of staff to bid for him at auctions under their own names or under pseudonyms. The buyers paid in cash and goods were collected secretly from auctions in an unidentifiable van.

One buyer, a company called Epworth & Co., cited an office address in Newman Street. However, a dealer who tracked down the address was mystified to discover, on peering through the letterbox, that he was looking at an empty room.

The disruption of the war meant people were prepared to sell their possessions cheaply for hard cash, and in many cases Wellcome paid extraordinarily low prices.

The acquisition of material never slackened during his lifetime. Frustrated staff at Snow Hill (the headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome and Co. in Holborn, London) were inundated by the constant arrival of crates from all over the globe, including crates carrying pottery fragments and other items from his excavations in Sudan and Palestine. As a result, conserving, cataloguing and displaying the objects was difficult, and the bulk of the museum remained in its original packing cases for years. No more than one-tenth of the collection was exhibited during Wellcome's life.

Sketches by Captain Peter Johnston-Saint (one of Henry Wellcome’s collectors) of objects offered to him for sale in Rome, 1928.

Medicine and anthropology

"My interest in anthropology came before the medical, but still they have both continued on parallel lines or have been merged." (Henry Wellcome)

By the time of Wellcome's death, his collection totalled around 1.5 million books and objects, dwarfing those of Europe's most famous museums: it has been estimated that in 1930 it was around five times the size of the Louvre.

Wellcome said his aim in collecting was to "bring together a collection of historical objects illustrating the development of the art and science of healing throughout the ages."

But the actual collection ended up far exceeding this remit. As well as artefacts specific to medicine and healing, it included large quantities of weapons, bales of fabric, furniture, ancient cooking implements, porcelain, glassware, statues, coins, medals, objets d'art and even torture instruments. He also acquired a sample of the hair of various historical figures, including George Washington, George III, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington - whose relevance to medicine is not immediately apparent. It even had an arms and armour section, which acquired a practical role in World War II, when its old service rifles were offered to the Home Guard.

As a result, the collection has sometimes been criticised for lacking purpose or coherence. For Wellcome, the history of medicine was a smaller branch of the great 19th-century discipline of anthropology. Many academics of the day considered medicine to be just one part of everything we do to ensure the survival of our species - along with the hunt for food, protection against the elements and defence against other people.

"Most of the anthropological material possesses strong medical significance, for in all the ages the preservation of health and life has been uppermost in the minds of living beings." (Henry Wellcome)

The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1919.

With this view of medicine, it was natural that Wellcome's original concept of a Historical Medical Museum should broaden into that of a 'Museum of Man' - a reconstruction of every stage in humankind’s development by means of objects. Pieced together, he intended them to form a three-dimensional book presenting an all-encompassing history of humankind’s fight for survival through the ages.

He took photographs of objects and manuscripts, and made copies of them when he couldn’t buy the original, to fill any gaps in his collection. This, together with the fact that Wellcome didn't reject incomplete or seemingly unremarkable items has proven valuable to the historian. For example, out of the 1500 microscopes in the collection only 100 are important in their own right. But together they provide a comprehensive history of the microscope-making trade, including the names of lesser-known makers and how frequently standard parts were used in different instruments.

With the same sense of showmanship that characterised his business display stands at medical conferences, Wellcome wanted to create three-dimensional reconstructions of actual rooms to showcase the items in his collection. To this end he bought old furniture, fittings and equipment, so that visitors to his museum would be able to see what a hospital ward, sick room, consulting room or pharmacy looked like in the past.

Because he wanted his museum to be educational, Wellcome also collected a vast library of thousands of books relating to medical history to support the museum and provide scholars with research material.

First exhibition

By 1911, Wellcome decided to hold his first exhibition for an external audience, to coincide with the 17th International Congress of Medicine in London in 1913, and his staff could finally make a start at classifying the objects for the exhibition.

On 24 June 1913, the first temporary public exhibition of select objects from Wellcome's collection opened in 54a Wigmore Street, in the heart of the West End of London, next door to the main Burroughs Wellcome & Co. showroom.

The 'Historical Medical Museum' - featuring a Hall of Primitive Medicine, a Hall of Statuary, a Portrait Gallery and a series of period rooms and reconstructions - was opened by the President of the Section of History of Medicine at the Congress.

The Hall of Statuary.

World War I broke out the following year, disrupting Wellcome's collecting, and the Museum was used to illustrate military surgery. Sadly, all but one of the staff who had worked closely with Wellcome for years died in military service.

"With only one exception, all my staff, who have been training for years in my work and carrying out for me researches in the museums and libraries of Europe, entered military service and none returned."

The Museum opened after the war for a series of exhibitions for medical congresses, helping Wellcome to gain acceptance by the medical world, to which he had no professional entry.

Wellcome always held firmly to the belief that study of the past can inform and shape the future. He therefore saw his Historical Medical Museum as a venue for serious research, and said he did not want "stragglers" or "those who wish to view strange and curious objects" in his museum. Admission was mainly restricted to the medical and allied professions, and visitors had to apply to visit the Museum in writing. As a result, visitor numbers to Wigmore Street were low.

"I have found that the study of the roots and foundations of things greatly assists research, and facilitates discovery and invention." (Henry Wellcome)

Later years

As his projects outside his drugs company grew, Wellcome needed somewhere to house them together, and bought a site on Euston Road in 1930 for a new building. In 1932, two of his research laboratories (Bureau and Chemical), the two museums and the library moved in and were collectively called the Wellcome Research Institution (renamed the Wellcome Building in 1955).

In the years after Wellcome's death in 1936, there were various plans to display his museum within the Wellcome Building, including one for an exhibition in nine halls and a hall of statuary. However, with the destruction of Snow Hill during the Blitz, the company headquarters moved into the Wellcome Building, taking up the available space and putting paid to hopes of any extensive exhibiting. The museum therefore remained largely in store in various parts of London.

It gradually became clear that Wellcome's vast concept of a Museum of Man could never be realised and the museum would have to limit its scope to medical history. Much to the sadness of his museum staff, his collection was gradually dismantled. Objects deemed tangential to the history of medicine were dispersed across the globe as far as Canada, Australia and Zimbabwe, reducing the collection to around half a million objects.

In 1968, the Museum and Library were given the new joint title of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. In 1972 a panel of scholars recommended that the Wellcome Institute should concentrate on postgraduate history of medicine research and the library be developed as an international research facility.

Since this left the museum static and in store, the panel suggested transferring it to a national museum. The Trustees therefore approached the Science museum. The negotiations involved seeking a legal ruling on whether they could, under the terms of Henry Wellcome's will, make the collection over to the Science Museum on permanent loan. The Appeal court agreed to the transfer, which was announced in July 1976 and began in 1977.

'Medicine Man: The forgotten museum of Henry Wellcome', an exhibition at the British Museum in 2003 (to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Henry Wellcome’s birth in 1853) reunited 700 objects from Wellcome's original collection that had been dispersed to different museums across the globe. This exhibition is now permanently housed on the first floor of Wellcome Collection - the £30 million transformation of the Wellcome Building at 183 Euston Road into a national venue, which opened in 2007. There, finally, 'Medicine Man' offers a manifestation of Wellcome's vision and a glimpse of the vastness of his collection.

A view of some of the masks on display in ‘Medicine Man’ at Wellcome Collection.
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