The Story of Sir Henry Wellcome and the Wellcome Collection

Born in a log cabin in Almond, Wisconsin, in 1853, Henry Wellcome was one of the most influential pharmacological entrepreneurs and an avid collector of medical artefacts. Wellcome had reportedly always had an interest in marketing, having developed his first product at 16 when he advertised his invisible ink (just lemon juice) in the local newspaper.

Henry Wellcome – Wikimedia Commons

In 1880, Wellcome and colleague Silas Mainville Burroughs founded the London-based Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, specializing in pharmaceuticals. Notably, the company popularized the use of medicine in the form of tablets. Additionally, they pioneered the marketing of pharmaceuticals directly to doctors by offering free samples. The company was incredibly successful and established several research laboratories.

Wellcome Tincture of Digitalis c. 1914 – Museum of Health Care 996001160

Despite his career success, Wellcome had an unhappy personal life. He and his wife, Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo, eventually separated after having one child who they passed on to foster parents due to their constant traveling. After their separation, Wellcome’s wife had affairs with several men, including celebrated author William Somerset Maugham and Harry Gordon Selfridge of the UK’s Selfridges department stores. These affairs were cited in Wellcome’s file for divorce.

Bromides tabloid container; the ‘Tabloid’ name was trademarked by Wellcome to eliminate competition trying to sell pills c. 1920-30 – Museum of Health Care 011028001

Wellcome died of pneumonia in London, England at age 82. In his will, Wellcome spread his assets among several individual trustees who were instructed to spend his funds to better humanity. These funds were combined to form the Wellcome Trust, which is today the largest charity in the UK and one of the largest medical charities in the world, worth $33.5 billion CAD today. It offers hundreds of millions of dollars a year toward clinical training and biomedical research.

Tabloid Medicine Case c. 1880-1910 – Museum of Health Care 1975.11.2 a-al

In addition, Wellcome had an impressive collection of medical artifacts (including Napoelon’s toothbrush), which became part of the Wellcome Collection. His archival collection is now stored at the Wellcome Library, and his artefacts can be found in museums across the world. A large part of this collection can be found at the Science Museum in London, England.

If you would like to learn more about these artefacts and many others, click the button below to see our Online Collection Catalogue.

Kylie Meyerman<br>(Digital Content & Marketing Assistant 2022)
Kylie Meyerman
(Digital Content & Marketing Assistant 2022)

Kylie Meyerman is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Health Sciences at McMaster University, and plans to graduate in April 2024. This is her first time working at the museum, but she has been a long-time admirer. As a Canada Summer Jobs student this year, she is contributing to the creation and management of the museum’s online content.

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