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The Wellcome Trust

The Sunday Times

Wellcome: Hard sell

The Sunday Times, February 27 1994

By Brian Deer

Were you to travel to central London and stand outside the seven-story building at 183 Euston Road, you wouldn't think, to look at it, that you were close to anything of note. The structure's white Portland stone facade and Greek-columned central pavilion are reminiscent of nothing more memorable than, say, a US courthouse, or a downsized Bank of England. The external elevations are self-important but unimaginative. To set eyes on them once is to forget them.

But if you sneaked through the revolving front door and up 12 cold steps to the lobby, you would find yourself in elegant spaces that shout most loudly of money. Number 183 Euston Road is the creation of the late Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, perhaps the premier architect of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and the builders didn't skimp on the job.

On the day it opened in 1932 (only four years before Henry died), it was a point of distinction that no wood or cheap metals should be visible to the visitor's eye. The floors and walls were of fine imported marbles, the doors and windows exclusively of bronze. It was all to the taste of a president, or king. A style to suit the man.

The interior's grandeur does perfect justice to 183's extraordinary role. This building is the headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the world's richest private medical research foundation, with assets of more than £10 billion. It is the wealthiest British charity, declaring assets twice as great as the Church of England commissioners. From here the trust controls Wellcome plc, a top multinational drug company. And, through that company, it controls Burroughs Wellcome, its United States offshoot, and the charitable Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

From these companies and charities, through grants and sponsorships, government agencies, universities, hospitals and scientists are influenced all over the world. The trust distributes more money to institutions than even the British government's Medical Research Council.

In offices on the building's first floor, decisions are reached that affect lives and health on scales comparable with minor wars. In the conference room, high above the street, and in the meeting hall, in the basement, rulings in biotechnology and genetics are handed down that will help shape the human race.

If all of this is news to you, then some Wellcome products may be more familiar. Wellcome plc, which trades, confusingly, as the Wellcome Foundation (and which not long ago decamped to a green-glass tower at 160 Euston Road), most notably sells AZT, the anti-Aids drug, which last year commanded a market of £248m. More commercially notable is its herpes treatment, acyclovir, sold as Zovirax, grossing £760m.

There are also over-the-counter cough and cold products, Sudafed and Actifed, which brought in £141m. And some 50 other treatments, from an antibacterial, marketed as Septrin, Septra or Septran, to a gout remedy, allopurinol: Zyloric or Zyloprim. Total sales revenues are more than £2billion annually. More than enough to keep the front door spinning.

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The special place of honour at 183, is a shrine to the founder, in the basement. By the stairs near the entrance is an oil painting of the man: middle-aged, with a handlebar moustache. In cabinets to the right are examples of the merchandise and promotions that got his empire going. There are personal items, such as his honours and medals, and his soft-spined, preacher-style, Bible.

On a winter evening among these things, you can almost feel his presence. But if Henry Wellcome lives on - and in some ways he does - it's in the shape of a document that his trustees today choose not to place on display. Soon after he was knighted, by King George V, and shortly before the building was officially opened, he knew that he was approaching the end of his life, and he filed a remarkable will.

With a lengthy hand-written memorandum, he set out a framework for how his empire should operate, even half a century after his death. A copy is held by the Charity Commission in London, and with the rise in the wealth and influence of his organisation, they have become some of medicine's most important documents.

What Henry Wellcome set out was a double-edged scheme to run a business and a charity together. The flagship would be a philanthropic body - now the Wellcome Trust - enjoying the image and tax benefits of magnanimous, public-spirited generosity. But, behind this would operate "industrial organisations": straight up-and-down for-profit corporations. Today these trade under the names of the Wellcome Foundation Ltd (long wrongly assumed to be charitable), and its parent, Wellcome plc.

The scheme was essentially a Masonic contrivance. Henry Wellcome was a lifelong Freemason. And, despite the efforts of many among Britain's great and good who have since administered his affairs on the board of trustees, so successful was this merging of profit with charity that it has given a dead man a tighter grip on medicine than that enjoyed by few who are alive.

Urging that there should be "frequent consultations" between the charitable and the commercial arms, Henry Wellcome revealed in the memorandum the scale of his ambitions for his empire's future. "With the enormous possibility of development in chemistry, bacteriology, pharmacy and allied sciences," he predicted, "if my desires and plans are carried out in the way of research co-operation with the several industrial organisations, there are likely to be vast fields opened for productive enterprise for centuries to come."

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Henry Wellcome | Wellcome Trust
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This report is copyright, Brian Deer. No portion of this article on Henry Wellcome and the Wellcome Trust may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express permission of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated