Sir Henry Wellcome
Most of the objects in the Egypt Centre were part of the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome.
He was born on August 21st 1853 in a log house in Wisconsin USA. His father, Solomon, was a minister and along with his father, mother Mary, and his brother George, Henry led a hard, farming and deeply religious life. The family moved to Minnesota, near Solomon’s brother Jacob, a surgeon. Jacob was to have an early influence on the young Henry who became interested in medicine and pharmacy.
Henry trained as a pharmacist and became a student of William Mayo the doctor and scientist. Mayo told him a statement made by Pasteur, which he never forgot: ‘Men without labs are as soldiers without arms.’ He was to make research a main part of his life’s work. Henry Wellcome was very ambitious and devoted himself to his work.
Silas Burroughs (1846-95) was also an ambitious businessman and specialised in the new compressed medicine tablets. In 1880 Henry came to London to join Burroughs and set up a successful pharmaceutical firm called Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. Their list of goods was quite limited at this time and many items such as ‘pine tar soap’ and ‘witchhazel’ were not drugs.
Wellcome enjoyed entertaining and used it as a tool to promote business. He was obsessed with publicity and took great care in designing elaborate adverts. He wanted a distinctive trademark for the Burroughs Wellcome products and he invented the word ‘tabloid’ which was a registered trademark in 1884. The word entered the English language and dictionary and it was many years later used to describe a type of newspaper. He did not take kindly to others firms imitating his distinctive products and took some to court for using his trademarks.
But in spite of their success by 1882 the Wellcome Burroughs relationship had turned sour. The bad feeling increased and they had bitter disputes. Burroughs’ sudden death in 1895 made Wellcome the sole owner of the company and he was now free to establish his laboratories and place emphasis on research. Over the years many important results have come from the Wellcome laboratories.
Burroughs death also meant Wellcome was free to collect on a grand scale. He had always been a collector, but with no particular emphasis until the early 1890s. His ambition was to collect books and artefacts relating to the history of medicine and pharmacy. He now began to form the collection that in 1913 became the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London. His purpose was to illustrate the history of medicine. Research and study was his main aim. The museum was not for the use of the general public, whom he referred to as ‘Stragglers.’
Wellcome admired the good works of others. One such man was Dr Barnardo. Wellcome became a close family friend and married Barnardo’s beautiful young daughter called Syrie who was 26 years his junior. They had a son called Mounteney in 1903. It was unfortunate that their marriage coincided with Wellcome’s passion for collecting and travelling, his collecting became a major cause of friction between them. While on one of their long trips abroad he angrily accused Syrie of being unfaithful to him, she left him and went to New York. They never spoke to each other again.
In 1912, after the break up of his marriage, Wellcome returned to Egypt, cruised up the Nile and travelled to Jebel Moya. Finds from the site were shipped in great quantities to London for inspection and storage. His collection was out of control; it contained 5 times more items than the Louvre and had an expenditure far higher than the British Museum. Items included paintings, weapons, sculpture and human remains. It became so vast the bulk of it never left its packing cases.
He employed a network of agents to buy for him in many countries. While buying himself from auctions and dealers he learned a few tricks; ‘I usually put on plain clothes, a top hat usually excites the dealer and the higher the hat the higher the price.’
He also tried to keep his extensive buying a secret. He never allowed his name to be used in the salesroom and often used the name ‘Wilton.’ However, even with his elaborate precautions the dealers found out and mixed lots containing rubbish were made up around items they knew Wellcome would want.
He was knighted in 1932 for his contribution to medical science and elected an Honorary fellow of the Royal College of surgeons, he also received honours from other countries.
He died on July 25th 1936 and his will established the Wellcome Trust, whereby five Trustees ensured the profits of his company were to be used for medical research. This was the first time in Britain that a bequest was made whereby trading profits were dedicated to the advancement of knowledge for the benefit of mankind.
Wellcome trustees had a formidable task deciding what to do with the vast and largely un-catalogued collection. The medical material was transferred to the Science Museum London on a definite loan. There, 2 galleries contain a display called the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine. The vast quantity of non-medical material was sold, or offered to other museums or institutions on a permanent loan, or offered back to their place of origin, or given to organisations such as the British Red Cross where they could be used. Approximately 1,300 cases of material were sent to the British Museum for inspection, a policy later resented by other museums taking part. By 1983 all the collection was effectively in the care of museums all over the world.
In February 1971 an agreement was signed by University College London on behalf of the Wellcome Trustees, and University College Swansea. The condition of the transfer was that the objects should be made available to research students and that part of it, at least, should be shown to the public. The Egyptian material was put under the care of Dr Kate Bosse-Griffiths and housed in a room in the Classics dept, called the ‘Wellcome Museum in Swansea’. Later, Kate retired and Dr David Gill took over caring for the collection as honorary curator. It was decided to provide full public access to the collection and a grant was obtained from the European Regional Development fund and from the Heritage Lottery fund to build an extension onto the Taliesin Arts Centre in order to house the collection.
The Centre Opened in 1998.
James, Robert R. 1994. Henry Wellcome, Hodder & Stoughton. London. Museums Journal Vol 86 1986.
Turner, H. 1980. Henry Wellcome The Man, His Collection and His Legacy. London: Heinemann Educational Books.