Two medicine chests, belonging to polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

The Wellcome collections

In the 1880s Americans Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs built up a successful and prosperous pharmaceutical firm in Britain. Burroughs Wellcome & Co soon expanded across the globe and made the partners very wealthy. Wellcome was interested from childhood in the history of mankind and before 1900 conceived the idea of a museum devoted to the history of medicine. Always a collector, Wellcome began to spend much of his time and wealth travelling extensively to find objects for the museum. Eventually he had a network of staff monitoring auctions and going on buying trips to find material. The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum first opened in London in 1913. However, the pace of collecting never slackened during Wellcome’s lifetime and most was never displayed – indeed, never unpacked. In 1976 the Wellcome Trust reached agreement with the Science Museum for the transfer of the collection, comprising about 114,000 items, on permanent loan. Many of the most important objects are now permanently displayed at the Science Museum on two floors devoted to medical history, while a series of special exhibitions – on dentistry, veterinary medicine and many other subjects – has focused on particular groups of objects.

Among the objects Wellcome was able to secure was possibly the world's oldest surviving medicine chest. This was made for Vincenzo Giustiniani (d 1570), the last Genoese governor of the island of Chios in the eastern Aegean Sea. The chest still holds 126 bottles and pots for drugs, some of which appear to have 16th century contents. The chest was owned by the Giustiniani family until Henry Wellcome bought it in 1924. Another notable item is a Chinese acupuncture training model of about 1727. This is a bronze figure used to teach the position of acupuncture points on the body. Moving closer to present-day medicine, Wellcome secured a microscope used by Louis Pasteur in his work on the diseases of silkworms.