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Henry Wellcome: the man who made medicine
  1. John Launer
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Launer, Health Education England, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1H 5DN, UK; johnlauner{at}

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Between the middle of the nineteenth century and the second world war, the nature of medical practice changed beyond recognition. Much of this happened through advances in the pharmaceutical industry. These included the formulation and mass production of pills and capsules, scientific treatments and vaccines, the standardisation of dosages, the establishment of laboratories for drug research, worldwide systems of manufacture and distribution, direct marketing to doctors, and the dominance of a small number of massively profitable companies to coordinate all this activity. One man was involved in all of these advances and was the prime mover of many of them.

Henry Solomon Wellcome was born in 1853, the son of a farmer and small town preacher from Minnesota.1 As a child he assisted an uncle who ran a surgery and drug store. In his late teens he moved to Chicago and then Philadelphia to train as a pharmacist. After a few years as a highly successful salesman, he took up an invitation to come to London and form a company with an ambitious American colleague, Silas Burroughs. Wellcome turned out to be an entrepreneurial genius, with an perfectionist's eye for design, branding and marketing opportunities, not to mention financial accounts. The business partnership itself went sour with some unpleasant litigation, but after Burroughs's early death in 1895, Wellcome continued to introduce countless new products, and to found factories, laboratories and research institutes around the world, bringing him immense wealth.

The medical innovations attributable to his enterprises included anti-toxins for tetanus, diphtheria and gas gangrene, the isolation of histamine, and the standardisation of insulin. He became a knight of the realm, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a generous philanthropist. At his death in 1936, Wellcome bequeathed all the shares of his company to a trust for medical research. …

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