Burroughs Wellcome & Co. Offices, Snow Hill, 1888

The Unceasing Seeker

Like John Tradescant and John Graunt before him, Henry Solomon Wellcome came from humble beginnings and began collecting to support his business. It is thought that by the end of his life, his collection consisted of five times as many items as the Louvre contained, a feat driven by Wellcome’s desire to piece together the entire history of man.

Scroll down

1. Driven by business

Many of Henry Wellcome’s earliest acquisitions were books full of design ideas he and his staff could apply to the pharmaceutical products and marketing materials of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. He also collected containers that might provide visual inspiration for the company’s packaging and decorated his business offices with hunting trophies, works of art and literature.

2. An ambitious aim

Collecting offered Wellcome, a businessman from the American Mid West, a path towards scholarly respect and recognition within London society. In the 1890s he conceived a plan to research and publish an encyclopaedic book, a chronicle of human ingenuity that would document the use of animal products in medicine from antiquity to contemporary times. His ambitious aim would be achieved by collecting books and artefacts and empirically testing the chemistry of various substances.

3. A network of collectors

With an unceasing zeal for collecting, Wellcome bought objects and publications from bazaars, bookshops, pharmacies, dealers and private collectors. He employed a network of agents to purchase items under assumed names and engaged researchers to sift through the information they acquired. Stockpiling ideas as much as objects, Wellcome forbade his agents from making personal purchases and refused his researchers’ requests to investigate areas he intended to study himself.

4. A never-ending quest

Wellcome’s planned book never appeared. No sooner did he approve an acquisition than he became distracted by the promise of something more interesting. Boxes and crates piled up in his archives, and the preparation of the manuscript was endlessly postponed.

As the collection expanded to include armour, weapons, medical equipment, amulets and even entire shops, Wellcome’s insatiable appetite for acquiring objects outweighed any inclination to sort, catalogue or even use the books regularly arriving in his stores. The focus of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, which was used by researchers, missionaries and colonial travellers, was squarely on collecting – it was never opened to the general public (or ‘stragglers’, as Wellcome once labelled them) in Wellcome’s lifetime.

5. Ultimate recognition

Wellcome famously described his plans as existing in his mind, ‘like a jigsaw puzzle, and gradually I shall be able to piece it together’. Although he never completed the research he likened to a ‘struggle for light’, Wellcome’s vision drove the eclectic growth of his collection for many years. Today, Wellcome Collection and the Wellcome Library still collect and present a broad interpretation of medical history.

Ultimately, Wellcome obtained the recognition he so desperately craved: at the age of 79, he was made both a Knight of the realm and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

A touch of time

Stewart Conn

My plans exist in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle… and gradually I shall be able to piece it together

Sir Henry Wellcome, 1853–1936

As though a neolithic arrowhead he’d unearthed
at the age of four had entered his bloodstream,
its sliver of flint sparking an obsession, the items
he acquired over the years ranged from Darwin’s
whalebone walking-stick, Napoleon’s toothbrush
and a pair of Florence Nightingale’s mocassins
to shrunken heads and tons of ancient armour.

But despite all his squirrelling, the museum
to house them remained illusory. Picture him,
his explorer’s garb and trappings laid aside,
increasingly hemmed in, until overwhelmed
by the mouldering mountain, moth-eaten,
worm-ridden, filling his Willesden warehouse
to overflowing, he ended up part haunted,

part devoured by more than enough to fill five
Louvres but not some insatiable chasm within.
Garlanded and afforded the scholastic kudos
he craved, a vast fortune securely amassed,
did he at the last find respite from cupidity
or in a lonely hall of mirrors cower from those
behemoths hemming him in, their foetid breath?

Please help us by telling us what you thought of this digital story

Next:

The ‘Obscene’ Doctor

Wellcome intended his museums to be used primarily by those engaged in research. Yet he also knew how to exploit his acquisitions to create a spectacle – a skill he shared with another London immigrant, whose popular collection was ultimately destroyed.

Find out more in Wellcome Library
Show