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Biographical entry Wellcome, Sir Henry Solomon (1853 - 1936)

Hon FRCS 10 March 1932; KB 1932; FSA 6 March 1913; FRS 1932; DSc Marquette Wisconsin; Hon LLD Edinburgh.

21 August 1853
Almond, Wisconsin, USA
27 July 1936
Archaeologist, Chemist, Collector, Pharmacist and Philanthropist


Born in a log cabin at Almond, Portage County, 125 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, on 21 August 1853, the son of the Rev S C Wellcome and Mary Curtis, his wife; his father was a missionary working amongst the Indian tribes. The son attended the schools on the frontier, including one which was held in a typical Western log hut schoolhouse. As a boy he was in the midst of the great Sioux Indian war in Minnesota, when more than a thousand whites were massacred. He was made captain of the boys whose duty it was to cast rifle bullets for the defence of the settlement, and actively assisted his uncle, a surgeon, in treating the wounded. He chose chemistry and pharmacy as his career, studied in Chicago, took his diploma in Philadelphia, and afterwards went to New York, where he wrote several articles for scientific journals. He then travelled widely in the United States and studied the native cinchona forests in South America.

He came to London in 1880 and with S M Burroughs founded a business for making fine chemicals, alkaloids, and pharmaceutical products. The firm, as Burroughs and Wellcome, was amongst the first to take advantage of modern chemistry and machinery to supply pure drugs in a solid and compressed form. The drugs were sold under the registered name of "Tabloids", a term so convenient that it was soon adopted into the English language for anything compressed into a small form. The word was employed by other manufacturers until on 14 March 1884 the Court of Appeal determined that it could only be used by Messrs Burroughs and Wellcome. Burroughs died and Wellcome carried on the business alone, until in 1914 it was converted into the Wellcome Foundation, with Wellcome as the governing director. He took out letters of naturalization as a British subject on 28 October 1910. He married on 25 June 1901 Gwendoline Maude Syria, daughter of Dr Thomas John Barnardo, the founder of Barnardo's Home. She, after a divorce, became Mrs Somerset Morgan, leaving him with one son, who survived him. He died in London after an operation on 27 July 1936, leaving a very large fortune, which he had placed in trust for the public benefit.

Wellcome was a man of varied interests. Foremost came his business. From small beginnings he raised it to a world-wide concern, and being a practical man he preferred experiment to theory. He was not content to supply pure drugs, but he wished to know why they acted and how they could be put to the best use. For this purpose he founded in 1894 a physiological research laboratory first at Brockwell Hall, Herne Hill, and afterwards at Beckenham. In 1896 he opened a chemical research laboratory, in 1913 a medical research museum which included tropical medicine and hygiene with anthropology, and in 1915 an entomological field research centre at Claremont. Each of these laboratories was placed in charge of a highly skilled superintendent and much experimental work of great scientific value emanated from them. It became evident, however, that they were too widely separated and their work was co-ordinated in 1913 in a Bureau of Scientific Research, and in 1930 they were centralized at the Wellcome Research Institution, a fine building at the corner of the Euston Road and Gordon Street which was opened by Lord Moynihan on 25 November 1931.

Tropical medicine interested him from the time he was amongst the first civilians to enter the Sudan after it had been recaptured in 1885. In 1900 he founded the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories in connexion with the Gordon Memorial College at Khartum, placed the laboratories in charge of Sir Andrew Balfour, and attached to them a floating research laboratory, which cruised through the waterways of the Nile and its tributaries in the Sudan. A few years later he gave great help in securing the foundation of the Gorgas Tropical Research Laboratories on the Panama Canal. Next in interest for Wellcome came his collection of an historical medical museum, comprising anthropological specimens, medical appliances, coins, pictures, statuary, books, and druggists' wares. It was for many years housed in inadequate premises in Wigmore Street, where it was too little known to the general public. It was mainly gathered together by C J S Thompson, afterwards keeper of the historical section at the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum, and was rearranged by his successor L G Malcolm, MA. As an archaeologist Wellcome began excavations in the Sudan in 1901 and continued them in 1910, making Gebel Moya his centre and being amongst the first to recognize the value of aerial photography in field exploration. He investigated more particularly various sites in the province of Sennar, and was especially interested in the excavations of the Bible city of Lachish.

During the war of 1914-18 he instituted a special commission to secure improvements in the design of Army field ambulances. He also constructed and equipped a chemical and bacteriological motor field research laboratory, which was used in Palestine and Egypt. At different times he founded the Lady Stanley Maternity Hospital (1927), a medical hospital dispensary in Uganda, and (1908) placed a fund under the control of the China Medical Missionary Association to translate into Chinese the various medical, surgical, and chemical textbooks required by the native students, who were being educated on the lines of European medicine. Many honours came to him from various quarters. He was created a Knight Bachelor in 1932, he was invested with the Cross of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in France, 1934, he was admitted an LLD (1927) of the University of Edinburgh, and was elected FSA in 1913 and FRS in 1932. In New York he was awarded the Remington honour medal, the highest professional award in pharmacology, and in London (1885) he received the Royal Humane Society's medal for a gallant rescue from the Thames. Personally Wellcome was a quiet, reticent, and almost shy man, slightly below middle height, clean-shaven, alert, and quickly brightening up when he became interested in some topic of conversation. Generous and often lavish, he was not free from faults. He was a hard man, not easy to work with or to satisfy. He was arbitrary, and thought so little of those who had served him well and faithfully for many years that he would dismiss them almost at a moment's notice and seemingly without sufficient reason; in other words, he treated distinguished scientific men as though they were mere employees. A buyer of books on a large scale, he left them unsorted and uncatalogued. There was in him therefore something of the spirit of a miser. His great library was opened to the public after the second world war.

In January 1924 the Wellcome Foundation Ltd was formed, to take over all the business activities of Burroughs Wellcome and Co. and the various institutions and museums founded by Wellcome, who held the whole of the share capital. By his will the shares of the Wellcome Foundation were vested in trustees for the maintenance of the Research Undertaking Charity and the Museum and Library Charity. (Brit med J 1937, 1, 242 and leading article at p 224.) In 1941 the Wellcome Foundation joined with other companies to form the Therapeutic Research Corporation of Great Britain. On 6 December 1937 the sale of his personal collections, including the contents of his house at Gloucester Gate, Regent's Park, was begun. The collections included some 700 chairs and settees by Chippendale and other masters, European and Oriental; weapons and fire-arms; portraits; porcelain, pottery, and glass; needlework and oriental textiles; and the largest known collection of models of boats (The Times, 2 December 1937, p 12e).

The story of Metlakhatala, 1887 [The history of the Indian nation to which his father ministered].
Wellcome also wrote many chemical and Galenical reports.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 27 July 1936, p 14d, and 5 August 1936, p 4b; The Yorkshire Gazette, 27 July 1936; Lancet, 1936, 2, 292; Brit med J 1936, 2, 261, with portrait, and p 318; A de Mets, Sir Henry Wellcome, une gloire nationale anglaise, Art m├ędical d'Anvers, 1937, pp 93-112, with portrait; Royal Society, Obit Notices of Fellows, 1938, 2, 229, with portrait; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England