- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009


By Frances Larson

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 320 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

Although at first glance this book’s title and subtitle might seem hyperbolic, they are not. In fact, given its subject’s life and accomplishments in the field of commerce, how he conquered the world wouldn’t be that inappropriate. Henry Wellcome was one of those figures who sprang from humble roots and flourished very far from where fate had planted him.

Literally born in a log cabin in 1853, this son of the Midwest made his fortune across the Atlantic, where his groundbreaking company, Burroughs Wellcome, revolutionized the British pharmaceutical industry. By the time he died in 1936, he was a naturalized Englishman knighted by King George V.

As if this were not enough, he had become a notable collector who had amassed one of the largest bodies of historical relics and objects in the world, centered on the scientific and medical but ultimately ranging far beyond these spheres. It is this collection that is the focus of British anthropologist Frances Larson’s fascinating study, but inevitably it has turned into a biography of its “onlie begetter.”

Wellcome is a biographer’s dream come true. How many subjects operate on such different levels? A pioneer like him in the field of pharmaceutical commerce who amassed a great fortune would be enough of a subject, but when he goes on not only to be a notable philanthropist but also a globetrotting demon rooting out recondite objects in the field, the biographical cup runneth over.

As if this were not enough, when he was a confirmed bachelor in middle age, Wellcome married a young woman who would turn out to be a powerhouse interior decorator and, after a scandalous divorce, become the wife of none other than W. Somerset Maugham.

Wellcome is one of those figures who never quite do the expected: There’s always an unexpected wriggle. It might be expected that the charitable trust he funded would be for medical research, but how many other philanthropists laid down that it had to concentrate on benefiting animals as well as human beings?

The story of Burroughs Wellcome’s pharmaceutical triumphs is itself worthy of a book, and, to her credit, Ms. Larson’s account of his contribution to the advances in this field is as enthralling as anything she writes about his collection. The list of products in his catalog by the 1990s is an amazing mixture of the cutting edge and the arcane:

“Clients could choose from a variety of photographical chemicals, cosmetic creams and soaps, sweeteners and compressed tea, as well as bandages and gauzes, medical preparations like chloroform and ether, hypodermic needles, sanitary towels, menthol snuff, and an extensive series of remedial solutions, tablets and powders.”

The word “tablets,” so familiar to us and to generations throughout the past century, was in fact a revolutionary concept introduced by Wellcome. Compressing medicines by machine into small objects easy to swallow - our modern pill, then referred to as tabloid medications - seemed at the time this entrepreneur’s greatest contribution, and this book tells us that he defended the patented process for making them “fiercely.”

Indeed, their novelty did not pass unnoticed and endured: Ms. Larson informs us that “the ‘simplicity’ and ‘efficiency’ of these ‘beautiful’ pills drew comment year after year in the medical press.” It tells us, too, that he pioneered “a tradition of experimental work for the development of new drugs. By 1893, they could boast a laboratory for product testing that ‘would do credit to a university.’ ” Looking at today’s huge and productive pharmaceutical research divisions, this may well have turned out to be the greater and more influential innovation.

And of course, there’s the collection - so large that it filled a huge private museum in its founder’s lifetime and still overflowed into warehouse after warehouse, crowding out even the corridors and passageways. Just sorting it out was a herculean task for the conservator after his death:

“1,100 cases of ethnological objects, 110 cases of Graeco-Roman and other classical objects, 80 cases of miscellaneous small arms, 150 cases of prehistoric objects, 300 framed pictures, 85 cases of surgical instruments, 60 cases of pestles and mortars, 170 cases of Peruvian objects, 74 cases of weights and measure. And so it goes on.”

You see the roots of the collection in the medical and pharmaceutically related things, but you also see how far afield - figuratively and literally - Wellcome had roamed. Inevitably, along with many treasures, there was a certain amount of junk. And it is clear from the account in “An Infinity of Things” that the quest to amass became a kind of obsessive mania, which contributed to the breakup of Wellcome’s marriage: He met his future wife when excavating in the Sudan and separated from her a few years later while they were on an expedition to Ecuador, one of many they made in the few years they were together.

His quest for obsessional collecting also overtook any possibility of continuing commercial innovation. Yet this biography of a collection memorializes something splendid as well - an amazing energy, a continuing fascination with probing the past. And then of course, the man, that force of nature behind it all. There’s a great deal in this book to enthrall the reader.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide