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The Wellcome Trust

The Sunday Times

Wellcome: Hard sell

If any of the exhibits at 183 are pivotal, it must be his personal Bible. For many years the pages have been opened at a passage he marked in thick pencil for personal contemplation. "And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after," he selected from verse 26 of Deuteronomy 14. "For oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth."

Henry Wellcome was born in 1853, and grew up in Minnesota. Two uncles and his brother were Christian ministers, and his father was a noted lectern-thumper of the fundamentalist Second Adventist Church. This austere congregation was at the time in some confusion, after an end-of-the-world prophecy had - in 1844 - gone seriously unfulfilled.

He acquired from his father a tough-minded religiosity and, more usefully, a facility to persuade. Young "Hank", as he was then known, worked for a time in an uncle's drugstore, in the frontier settlement of Garden City. And it was there, aged 16, that he came up with a Big Idea that he was to deploy pretty much all his life.

Realising that it was not so much what a drugstore sold that mattered, but the way that it was presented, he bottled lemon juice and advertised it as invisible ink, with a pitch to shame a snake oil salesman:

Wellcome's Magic Ink
This is something entirely New and Novel!
Write with a quill or golden pen on white paper.
No trace is visible until held to the fire when
it becomes very black.
Prepared only by
Garden City, Minn.

His drugstore experience propelled him to pharmacy college, where he further developed his idea. It was less the science of medicine, he realized, than it was the marketing that created the profits. Taking the next step, in 1880, he moved to Britain, at the age of 26, and went into partnership with one Silas Burroughs: an even better salesman than himself.

Medicines were still mainly powders or liquids, so the two men first started a European agency for the newfangled style of American tablets. Wellcome prepared attractive-looking chests, containing such age-old remedies as ipecacuanha, strychnine and quinine. And in 1884 he laid claim to their format under the registered brand name "Tabloid".

Tabloid chests of medicines (some of which are displayed at 183) were often given away to influential people, and became the start of the modern industry's famed "freebies". Beginning as complimentary first-aid kits for the rich and powerful, the idea was soon expanded to provide foreign travel expenses and financial support for useful contacts.

Wellcome and Burroughs were especially noted for pioneering door-to-door selling to doctors. Pursuing the Big Idea, they realised that people became physicians often for reasons less to do with compassion than for family, prestige or wealth. Burroughs, in particular, was adept at calling on physicians with a gift and free samples, and departing with the knowledge that a new crop of patients had been won to the Tabloid brand.

Henry had comparable business acumen, but found time for a personal passion for exploration. Inheriting from his father a belief in the Bible's literal truth, he spent vast sums from the Tabloid coffers to scour Africa for evidence of prehistoric white tribes. In one project in Sudan, he hired 4,000 people to dig for four years, trying to prove that evolution was wrong.

In such bizarre ventures, the Wellcome founder’s personality came dramatically to the fore. Donning the white pith helmet of the imperial explorer, he would distribute peacock feathers among his native workers who abstained from alcoholic drink. As an alternative to such carrots, there was also a stick: he would whip men caught asleep on watch.

These aspects of his character have caused a few headaches to those concerned with his empire’s image. Much of his personal archive is claimed to have been destroyed, while a biography commissioned in the 1940s from a staff member (who noted Henry's "inflexible spirit of intolerance") has been kept locked away by the Trust.

None of these headaches has been worse than dealing with his marriage (in 1901) and divorce. His wife, Syrie Barnardo, daughter of Britain's most celebrated child-care philanthropist, Dr Thomas Barnardo, was 27 years his junior. And according to her friends, Syrie disliked Henry's cruelty: most notably alleging that he used to beat her with a sjambok, a South African cattle whip.

Perhaps in reaction, Syrie used his foreign trips as opportunities to court other men. Gordon Selfridge, an American-born department store magnate, was one. Then, at some time around 1911, she met, had a relationship, a child, and then a marriage, with the young Willie Somerset Maugham. He was England's most celebrated playwright of his time and, somewhat awkwardly for Syrie, was gay.

But according to the suppressed Wellcome biography (once briefly seen by someone writing about Syrie), the effect on Henry of his wife's affair with the playwright "soured his character for the remainder of his life". By the time he came to draft his will and memorandum - the biography concluded - the old man had lapsed "into a morbid misery only to be soothed by a vicious preoccupation in his own interests".


Henry Wellcome | Wellcome Trust
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