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Henry Wellcome (1853-1936)

Henry Wellcome was an American-born pharmacist and philanthropist whose huge personal fortune was spent on medical research and collecting medical objects.

Wellcome was born in the United States in 1853. When he was 8 years old, the town he lived in, Garden City in Minnesota, was attacked by the Sioux. He assisted his uncle, a medical practitioner and drug store owner, in caring for the wounded, and helped make bullets for the town's defence. This event had a big influence on Wellcome, triggering his interest in pharmaceuticals, and - despite the violence of the encounter - other cultures.

Wellcome went on to study pharmacy and became a travelling pharmaceuticals salesman. In 1880 he founded the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co. with a former fellow student, Silas Mainville Burroughs (d. 1895). The company imported a new form of compacted pills from the US; these pills were safer than traditional pills prepared with pestle and mortar because they contained standardised doses of drugs. Burroughs Wellcome registered this new form of pill under the trade name Tabloid - a name which now has come to refer to anything in compact form, especially ‘tabloid’ newspapers.

The company was highly successful, and Wellcome used his wealth to fund various activities. He founded scientific research laboratories, and collected over one and a half million historical objects and books related to the history of medicine around the world. Many of these objects are now on display in London at the Wellcome Collection, at the Science Museum and on this website.

Wellcome pursued other interests as well, such as leading an archaeological excavation in Sudan and aerial photography. Before his death in 1936, Wellcome set up a trust to fund biomedical research. The Wellcome Trust is now the largest charity in the UK, and the second largest medical research charity in the world.

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Glossary:

Pestle

An elongated piece of hard material usually made of stone. A pestle is used for grinding pigments, herbs, spices or other materials in a mortar.

Mortar

Cup-shaped vessel in which drugs or herbal mixtures are pounded with a pestle.