The ability to find beauty where others see ugliness is said to be the gift of poets and estate agents.
Being neither, I am rather surprised that I find so much to admire in Euston Road, despite the blight of six lanes of traffic, HS2 construction work and the continuous threatening rumble of malevolent wheeled suitcases. From its eastern end, going west, Euston Road boasts some splendid buildings: King’s Cross Station, the Eurostar terminal, the St Pancras Hotel, the British Library, and St Pancras New Church, with its stubby caryatids. Slightly further on there is an Arts and Crafts Fire Station, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, Friends House (the home of Quakers in Britain) and, finally, the two that concern us here: the Wellcome and Gibbs Buildings. The first, a neoclassical design of 1932, is home to the Wellcome Collection and the adjoining Gibbs Building is an impressive 2004 glass-and-steel construction housing the administrative centre of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical research charity.
Their founder, American-born Sir Henry Wellcome, trained in pharmacy before moving to England in 1880 where he teamed up with fellow countryman Silas Burroughs who had already been in London for 2 years marketing products of the US pharmaceutical company John Wyeth. Together they established a new venture, Burroughs Wellcome & Co. Initially they continued to sell goods produced by other companies, but soon moved into manufacturing at their own premises in Wandsworth when their British supplier of malt extract and cod liver oil encountered production difficulties.
Wellcome, in particular, wanted to emulate the science-based pharmaceutical companies emerging in Europe, particularly in Germany. To this end, the company continued to increase its own manufacturing, focusing on ethical pharmaceuticals, advertising only in the professional press and deleting many extraneous items, such as shoe polish, from its product range. Its success was such that in 1883 the company moved into prestigious new offices at the corner of Snow Hill and Holborn Viaduct. It was one of the first commercial buildings to be lit entirely by electricity, supplied from the nearby Thomas Edison power station, itself the world’s first coal-fired plant producing electricity for public use. The interiors were designed by Christopher Dresser, a leading designer of the day and a major figure in the Aesthetic Movement.
When Burroughs died unexpectedly in 1895, Wellcome was left to continue his transformation of the firm alone. That same year, it started production of diphtheria antiserum, supported by the recently established Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories (WPRL). Five years earlier, von Behring and Kitasato, working at the Koch Institute, had shown that immune serum from an animal inoculated with diphtheria or tetanus could be used to treat infected animals. The value of serotherapy was dramatically demonstrated on Christmas Day the following year, saving the life of a child suffering from diphtheria, and by 1894 the antiserum was in widespread use in Berlin hospitals, reducing diphtheria mortality dramatically. Increased manufacture of antisera was facilitated by Roux’s demonstration that horses could be used in its production and, as a result, Wellcome established stables at Lissom Grove with a laboratory, first in Portland Place then later in Charlotte Street.
Wellcome was committed to high-quality science and founded other laboratories to join the WPRL, including the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratory in Khartoum. This commitment was also reflected in his recruitment of staff, such as his unfulfilled ambition for Frederick Gowland Hopkins (a later Nobel Prize winner) to run the WPRL. In 1904, Henry (later Sir Henry) Dale joined the laboratory, becoming its director 2 years later. Here he started his work examining the pharmacological activity of extracts of ergot of rye (the sclerotium formed following infection of the rye plant with the fungus Claviceps purpurea). Their use in obstetrics was first recorded in the 15th century and they have a range of physiological activities based on their content of ergoline alkaloids and simpler compounds such as tyramine, histamine and acetylcholine. It was Dale’s discovery of acetylcholine in ergot extracts that ultimately led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses.
Wellcome used the wealth he accrued for travel, archaeology and building a massive collection of artefacts and books associated with the history of medicine, some of which is on display in the Euston Road building and in the Wellcome Galleries of the Science Museum in South Kensington. He died in 1936 and established the Wellcome Trust in his will, supporting research in medicine and its history. The commercial activities of Wellcome merged with Glaxo in 1995 to establish Glaxo Wellcome but the name disappeared in 2000 with the merger that created GlaxoSmithKline, later GSK.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, in view of his riches, Henry Wellcome was well connected in the world of his time. He had a large house on the edge of Regent’s Park (now sporting a blue plaque) and at one stage lived in Marylebone Road, two doors away from the Tussaud family (of waxworks fame). In 1901 he married Syrie Barnardo, daughter of Dr Thomas Barnardo, founder of the children’s charity, though the marriage was not a success. Syrie eventually left Wellcome for Somerset Maugham, an extremely popular author and playwright of the day. Maugham initially trained as a doctor until the success of his first novel in 1897 changed the path of his career. His medical background may, however, explain his distinction of being one of the few authors to include a bacteriologist as one of his main characters, in The Painted Veil, a novella published in 1925. At the time of its publication the book was twice threatened with libel actions and has been made into a film on two occasions (in 1934 and 2006). Sadly though, the bacteriologist depicted is not a completely admirable character; cuckolded by his wife he takes her with him into the heart of a cholera epidemic in China as an act of revenge. You’ll probably be relieved to hear that it backfires on him, but it’s certainly not the sort of behaviour one would expect from an AMI member.
Tansey EM. Medicines and men: Burroughs, Wellcome & Co, and the British drug industry before the Second World War. Journal of the Royal Society Medicine 2002; 95, 411–416