Sir Henry Wellcome, founder of one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, was born 150 years ago this year.

Sir Henry Wellcome, founder of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, was born 150 years ago this year. Michael Sutton tells his story. 

In August 1862, as civil war ravaged the US, another conflict erupted on the western frontier. The Santee Sioux, led by chief Little Crow, sought to massacre or expel all settlers on their former hunting grounds. While every adult who could shoot prepared for battle, the young Henry Wellcome became ’captain of the boys’ in his home town. Besides melting lead and casting rifle bullets, Henry assisted his uncle, Jacob Wellcome, as he treated the wounded. This experience reinforced Henry’s early interest in chemistry and medicine - an interest that later led him to create one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. More surprisingly, Henry became strongly sympathetic to the Native Americans. He recognised that they had been shamefully treated, and devoted a substantial slice of his fortune to helping them. 

Henry’s ancestors were French Protestants who fled religious persecution to seek asylum in England, changing their name from Bienvenue to Wellcome. A Richard Wellcome emigrated to New England in 1640, but his great-grandson, Michael, born in Massachusetts in 1746, is the first well-documented Wellcome. Michael’s grandson, Solomon Wellcome (born 1827), headed westwards in 1849, and in 1850 married Mary Curtis of Almond, Wisconsin. Both belonged to the Second Adventist Church, in which Solomon later became a minister. Their second son, Henry Solomon Wellcome, was born in a Wisconsin log cabin on 21 August 1853. 

In 1861, the family moved to Garden City, Minnesota (population 394), where Solomon’s brother Jacob was a doctor and drug-store keeper. Henry joined the other pupils in its small log-built schoolhouse, but working as his uncle’s assistant had a bigger influence on his future. 

One of Jacob Wellcome’s friends was Dr William Worrall Mayo of Rochester, Minnesota, who had studied chemistry under John Dalton in Manchester before emigrating to America. On Mayo’s recommendation, Henry became a prescription clerk for a Rochester pharmaceutical company, at the age of 17. The job offered limited scope for study, so Henry moved to Chicago, and then to Philadelphia. There, he apprenticed himself to an apothecary, attending evening classes at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, and graduating in 1874 after a gruelling four-day examination. Within weeks he was hired by Caswell Hazard & Co, a major New York pharmaceutical firm. At 21 Henry was on his way to fame and fortune. 

After two years’ selling Caswell and Hazard’s products to doctors and druggists across the US, Henry joined their rivals, McKesson and Robbins. For them he travelled even further, searching Ecuador’s forests for new sources of Cinchona bark (the raw material for quinine). Meanwhile, he remained interested in chemical and medical research, publishing several articles in the American Journal of Pharmacy, but declining an invitation to become editor of The Pharmacist. In 1880, McKesson and Robbins offered him promotion and a higher salary, but Henry was already committed to a new venture in London with his friend Silas Burroughs. 

Burroughs was the European agent for another American pharmaceutical manufacturer, but also ran his own business, selling medical supplies, food supplements, soap and shoe-blacking. Like Wellcome, he had learned his pharmacy in Philadelphia, and his salesmanship on the road. Burroughs, Wellcome & Co soon established good relations with doctors, hospitals and druggists. While Burroughs promoted their products, Wellcome concentrated on importing and manufacturing them. Their biggest asset was a novel processing technique, which eventually added a new word to the English language. 

Pharmacists always had difficulty ensuring that patients took medicines in accurate doses. In 1843 an Englishman, William Brockenden, patented a machine for compressing a set quantity of powder into a tablet, and several American manufacturers improved it, though it remained slow and unreliable. Burroughs and Wellcome used machines made by Wyeth (Burrough’s former employer), to produce pills for the British and European market. Meanwhile, Wellcome combined the words ’tablet’ and ’ovoid’ to form ’tabloid’, registering it as a trademark in 1884. Other manufacturers who used it were sued, but ’tabloid’ soon became absorbed into everyday speech (though it was only applied to newspapers later). 

In 1888, frustrated by the limitations of Wyeth’s machine, Burroughs and Wellcome designed a better one. It produced 600 precisely measured tabloids per minute, giving them a clear lead over their competitors. But despite their success, the partners disagreed about the company’s future. Burroughs had supplied most of the initial capital, but Wellcome worked harder, and had more ambitious plans. He was already raising money to buy out his partner when Burroughs died of pneumonia in February 1895. After some aggravation (and litigation), Wellcome gained full control of the company in 1898. By then, he was shaping it in accordance with his own vision. No longer satisfied with manufacturing drugs, Wellcome began investing heavily in chemical and physiological research. 

In time, Wellcome’s labs produced profitable new products. But from the outset, their staff were also allowed to pursue interesting projects with no immediate commercial application, and to publish their results in academic periodicals like the Journal of the Chemical Society. This policy enabled him to attract and retain first-rate scientists like Henry (later Sir Henry) Dale - one of several Wellcome employees who became Fellows of the Royal Society. Wellcome himself was elected FRS in 1932, in recognition of his role as a promoter of scientific research. Today, it is hard to appreciate how radical his initiative was. In the 1890s, science professors looked disdainfully on the pharmaceutical trade, and urged graduates to shun it if they valued their professional reputations. This was understandable while physicians were unable to identify the causes of many common diseases, and pharmacists could give only limited relief to their patients. Nevertheless, progress was slowly being made. 

Louis Pasteur had demonstrated the role of microorganisms in spreading disease, and shown how some could be defeated. A few new medicines augmented the traditional pharmacopoeia, and greater chemical expertise brought higher standards of purity, and more accurate doses. However, when the Bayer drug company patented Aspirin in 1900, the heroic age of chemotherapy still lay ahead. Clinical trials of Salvarsan (Paul Erlich’s ’magic bullet’) began in 1909-10, while the sulphonamides and antibiotics that eventually transformed medicine came into general use only after Wellcome’s death in 1936. Yet even in the 1890s, Wellcome was committed to research with a broad scientific agenda, rather than a narrow commercial one. 

One of the first practical tasks his team tackled was producing diphtheria anti-toxin. In the early 1890s, researchers in Paris and Berlin had cured human diphtheria patients by injecting them with serum from the blood of previously infected animals. There was heavy demand for the new treatment, but producing serum of satisfactory purity in large quantities proved difficult, and it was some time before Wellcome’s team managed it. Wellcome sold the anti-toxin as cheaply as possible (initially, below cost price), to forestall suspicions that he was profiting unduly from human suffering. This was one among many generous gestures that also proved to be sound exercises in public relations. 

During the Boer War, and again in World War I, Wellcome placed his company’s resources at the disposal of his adopted nation (he took British citizenship in 1910, and was knighted in 1934). Besides providing medical supplies for the troops, he donated medicine chests and first-aid kits to many eminent travellers. Wellcome medical kits were used by Henry Morton Stanley on his African expeditions. They were carried in Edward VII’s automobile, and in Theodore Roosevelt’s saddle-bag. One was in Charles Lindbergh’s cockpit when he flew across the Atlantic in 1927, and in 1929 Admiral Byrd established the ’Wellcome Dispensary’ at his Antarctic base. 

Wellcome himself was an adventurous traveller. He visited the Sudan in 1900, and set up a clinic in Khartoum. The sanitary measures introduced there significantly reduced the local death rate, leading to the establishment of the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory, a model for similar institutions elsewhere. In 1910, the US government asked Wellcome to inspect healthcare facilities for workers building the Panama Canal - a project crippled for years by mosquito-borne diseases. Wellcome’s report vindicated the local supervisor, William Gorgas, whose expensive health programme was being criticised by cost-conscious bureaucrats at home. However, while it succeeded on a professional level, this expedition wrecked Henry’s already strained marriage. 

Syrie Wellcome was the beautiful and impulsive daughter of Thomas Barnado, the humanitarian founder of homes for orphan children. She was 26 years younger than Henry, and despite a strong mutual attraction their tastes and interests differed profoundly. He worked hard, and enjoyed strenuous recreations. (An expert canoeist and swimmer, he won the Royal Humane Society’s medal for saving a companion from drowning in a boating accident.) Though he became accustomed to moving among the rich and powerful, and appreciated the comforts of the high life, Henry seems to have been happier roughing it in the backwoods. Syrie, however, preferred socialising in sophisticated drawing-rooms, and hated the discomforts of long-distance travelling. 

In 1910, her mild flirtation with an American financier whom the couple met in Ecuador provoked a dramatic quarrel. She returned home, and Henry concluded his Panama mission alone. There was a discreet separation - and a generous financial settlement - but a scandalous divorce followed when Syrie bore a child fathered by the writer Somerset Maugham (whom she later married). 

The distress in his personal life intensified Henry’s absorption in his work and his numerous outside interests. In the autumn of 1910 he returned to the Sudan, where he financed and supervised massive archaeological excavations at Jebel Moya. The discoveries proved interesting - if not as revolutionary as Henry had hoped - and the project boosted the local economy. (Henry also provided health facilities for the native diggers, and built a school for their children.) 

When World War I began, Wellcome’s British laboratories expanded rapidly, producing millions of doses of vaccines against tetanus, gas-gangrene and typhoid, and finding substitutes for drugs previously imported from Germany. Meanwhile, Henry wrote frequently to influential friends in the US seeking support for Britain’s war effort - though with only limited success before 1917. 

During the war, Henry’s health deteriorated, and he delegated more company business to subordinates. His research laboratories, however, continued to make significant advances. In 1922 a new treatment for diabetes was discovered in America, and within months a Wellcome team solved the problems of preparing pure insulin in large quantities. In 1930, Wellcome staff isolated digitoxin, demonstrated its value for treating heart disease, and eventually brought it into commercial production. The company became one of the biggest powers in the pharmaceutical business, and for Henry, spending money was soon more of a challenge than making it. 

Donations to charities, philanthropic projects and subsidies to old friends in trouble absorbed some of his surplus. He also acquired a vast collection of historic scientific books and instruments - many of which are now on display in the Wellcome Gallery of London’s Science Museum or the Wellcome Institute Library. Henry’s will committed the Wellcome Foundation to expending a substantial portion of his company’s earnings on medical research, which it has done with great success since his death on 25 July 1936. The Foundation has also supported ground-breaking work on the history of the healing arts by scholars like the late Roy Porter. And yet perhaps the most appropriate commemoration of its founder’s pioneering spirit came when Wellcome anti-nausea drugs went to the moon with the Apollo astronauts. Henry would surely have cheered them on their way. 

Source: Chemistry in Britain


Michael Sutton

Further Reading

  • W. Hoffman, The long view from the Watonwan River - the millenarian odyssey of pioneer druggist Henry Wellcome.
  • R. Porter, The greatest benefit to mankind - a medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present, pp.428-492, chaps 14-15. London: Harper Collins, 1997.
  • R. Rhodes James, Henry Wellcome. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.
  • R. Sturgess, The Pharma. J., 1999, 263, 1015.
  • C. M. Wenyon, ’Henry Solomon Wellcome’, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1938, 6, 229.    

Contact and Further Information

Michael Sutton
Senior lecturer in the history of ideas
School of arts and social sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST