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In Praise and Thanks: The Real Sir Henry Wellcome and his legacy

Written by Lawrence Goldman

The Wellcome Collection has cancelled itself and its founder. What has Sir Henry Wellcome done to deserve being insulted after his death? His achievement was to make the world healthier and save c0untless lives.

The Wellcome Collection, a magnificent assemblage of items associated with the history of medicine that was put together by Sir Henry Wellcome, the brilliant pharmacist, businessman and benefactor, has decided to cancel both itself and Sir Henry in one go. Those in charge of the Collection, and, we must take it, the trustees of the Wellcome Trust itself which was established by Sir Henry at his death, have just told the world via Twitter that they no longer know ‘the point of museums’.

In that nihilistic spirit, they have removed the displays from the Wellcome Museum in Euston Road, London (which only date from 2007) because they represent ‘racist, sexist and ableist theories and language’ and have damned Sir Henry himself as ‘a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege’. They wish to tell the stories of the neglected, marginalised and excluded instead. In that spirit we, the public, are invited to offer suggestions for a future exhibition.

Here are some. Let the curators and the Trust begin their new exhibition with images of dead children, killed by diptheria within 24 hours of contracting the disease. Let them show us men and women, prematurely aged and near death, with all the conditions caused by diabetes. And let them display photos on their walls of young people ravaged by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Why these? Because the company that Henry Wellcome founded in the late nineteenth century devised the first vaccine for diptheria, was the first to mass-produce insulin for the diabetic, and pioneered the antiretroviral medicines that were the only line of defence in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic a generation ago.

The curators might also mock up the very first commercial pharmaceutical research laboratory in the world which Wellcome created in the 1890s, and ask visitors to the exhibition which they value more: the laboratory from which so many beneficial drugs emerged, or finding the right anti-colonialist language in which to damn Henry Wellcome? Without Wellcome and the company he founded, millions more would have died. In the real history, it is those who died without the benefit of Wellcome’s medicines who are the truly marginalised and excluded.

Wellcome himself was no son of ‘privilege’. He was born in a cabin on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century, lived in brutal poverty as a child, scraped an education, qualified in pharmacy, and then built a great company in this country. He was the archetypal self-made man, in fact.

Despite a childhood scarred by the Sioux uprising on the American plains in the 1860s, he was a lifelong admirer, advocate, and benefactor of Native Americans, writing a long and impassioned book in support of one displaced and dispossessed tribe, the Metlakatla, published in 1887.

In old age, and now rich, he oversaw large archaeological excavations in Sudan which provided wages and, significantly, also welfare for thousands of local workers engaged in the dig. He also funded the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories in Khartoum. Both initiatives are remembered with appreciation by Sudanese scholars today.

At his death, Henry Wellcome turned his great wealth into the Wellcome Trust, now one of the best-endowed foundations in the world, which funds literally half the medical research undertaken today in Britain, including the Human Genome Project at the Wellcome Sanger Institute outside Cambridge. This, among many other things, was a world centre for the tracking of Covid mutations during the recent pandemic.

Today’s Wellcome trustees have the admittedly large but relatively straightforward tasks of administering this great wealth for the benefit of medical research and human betterment; displaying Henry Wellcome’s collections and supporting his commitment to academic work in the History of Science; and honouring the man whose skills in business and science made all this possible. Why, then, have they allowed his legacy, his reputation, and his artefacts to be attacked with such vehemence and irrelevance?

If the trustees did not know about the cancellation of Henry Wellcome and his Collection they should have done, and it is to be hoped that they will reverse the decision to summarily close the exhibition without any plan for its replacement. But if they did know and support the move then they are failing in their duties as trustees. Why become a Wellcome trustee if you cannot support the reputation and legacy of the man who made it all possible? It is time that we heard from the Wellcome Trust itself.

Whatever the Trust’s views, this is surely a matter for the Charity Commission to investigate. The Trust may be in breach of its obligations under Henry Wellcome’s will. But there is a more profound issue at the heart of this affair which undermines philanthropy itself. Why would anyone want to endow and support science and medicine today and in the future if their fate is to fall victim to bad history and character assassination?

Next time you use a product made by GSK (formerly GlaxoSmithKline), into which the Wellcome company was folded in the 1990s, or receive a vaccine or drug made by a western company supported by research in a western laboratory, give thanks and praise to Henry Wellcome. His achievements have made the whole world healthier. All the rest is fashionable, pointless twitter which discredits a great institution.


Professor Lawrence Goldman was the Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography between 2004 and 2014. He is now Emeritus Fellow of St. Peter’s College, Oxford

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Lawrence Goldman