Missionary Work

Christopher Turner

  • An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World by Frances Larson
    Oxford, 343 pp, £18.99, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 955446 1

In 1881, a 27-year-old American moved into a house on the Marylebone Road that had belonged to an Indian rajah. ‘My collection of curiosities, Indian relics etc tally admirably with the house,’ Henry Wellcome wrote to his business partner, Silas Burroughs, ‘and so everybody seems rather fascinated with the effect, and in fact I rather like it myself. Some call it “Aesthetic”, some say “Heathenish”, some “Bohemian”, “Ideal”, “Artistic”, etc, etc … All in it is very cheerful: I brought my library and museum from America last winter.’ The ‘museum’ is a reference to the collection of ethnographic objects and exotic souvenirs that Wellcome had begun to assemble as a child in Minnesota (where he had lived through the Sioux uprising), and to which he had added while working in Central and South America as a travelling salesman for a New York drugs firm. These items eventually formed the basis for a collection of bewildering scope: by the 1930s more than a million archaeological artefacts, ethnographic specimens and objects pertaining to medical history – spears and surgical instruments, books and amulets, votive offerings and pairs of spectacles, skulls and hunting trophies – were jam-packed in warehouses all over London.

Burroughs Wellcome & Co, the business that paid for this magnificent trove of historical bric-à-brac, sold malt extract, cod liver oil, cocaine and other dietary supplements in the novel form of compressed tablets (their cocaine pills, labelled ‘Forced March’, were ‘to be dissolved in the mouth every hour when undergoing continued mental strain or physical exertion’). These revolutionary gelatine-coated ‘tabloids’, were ‘so attractive in appearance’, one customer marvelled in 1885, ‘that they might almost be mistaken for sweets’ – and they sold almost as fast. The two entrepreneurs built a factory in Kent, with machines capable of churning out 600 pills a minute. The pills were then aggressively marketed to doctors and pharmacies all around the country by salesmen in frock coats with crocodile-skin bags.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush
Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush

Wellcome, who made exquisite aluminium medicine cases for Stanley, Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott, supervised the design of the company’s advertisements and exhibition displays, for which his ever growing collection provided inspiration: the displays sometimes featured live cod and American Indians. He was also responsible for the walnut and alligator-skin decor of Burroughs Wellcome’s headquarters in the City. ‘He disliked sharp corners on furniture,’ the contractor remembered, ‘and usually wanted corners to be the exact curve of a sixpence, and always tested with a coin on first inspection.’

Burroughs disapproved of Wellcome’s ‘antiquarian studies’, and of his consorting with actresses: he accused his partner of being a poseur and playboy who neglected his work. It was only in 1895, when Burroughs died young (he and Wellcome hadn’t spoken in five years), that Wellcome felt free to start collecting on a grander scale. In his 1994 biography, Robert Rhodes James dismissed Wellcome as a ‘magpie collector’ who tried to rationalise the contents of his hoard after the fact, and concentrated instead on his subject’s social and business interests and his patronage of scientific research. Frances Larson, in contrast, makes the case for the importance of Wellcome’s collection, and she convincingly explains the logic behind his apparent indiscriminateness. Wellcome wanted to create a museum of man rather than a cabinet of curiosities, a version of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum (the subject of Larson’s previous book) that would not only show how material culture had evolved over time, but would also trace man’s perennial battle with disease, from the shaman’s rattle to aspirin.

An Infinity of Things, as the title suggests, is more a biography of the collection than of the man; Larson is interested in the relationships between the people who helped form it. The buyers and agents who did Wellcome’s bidding were colourful adventurers who bring life to the random and endless shopping lists catalogued in his numerous logbooks: ‘a blue and white china pap-cup; a poisoned dart in red bag; a pilgrim bottle; a pair of spectacles in a brass case; another pair of large round spectacles; some wooden scales; a skeleton warrior; a broken, painted thermometer ’.

Wellcome himself is absent from much of Larson’s account; he was, she writes, ‘so often away’. (Rhodes James details the numerous rest cures and holidays Wellcome took to relieve his ‘catarrh of the bowels’ – later diagnosed as ulcers.) But he makes his presence felt by his cantankerous memos and the taciturn marginalia he scribbled in the auction catalogues he was sent for approval: ‘I am very anxious to get this’; ‘Don’t let any of these good things slip away’; ‘Don’t lose them.’

While Wellcome was the impetus and the chequebook behind the collection, Charles Thompson, its first curator, was the unrecognised hero. Thompson ran what Larson describes as ‘a well-oiled acquisition machine’, a network of agents and buyers who trawled the globe for antiquities. He wrote weekly progress reports to Wellcome and, having worked as a journalist and popular science writer, was good at injecting drama into his accounts. It’s these that have allowed Larson to write such a gripping chronicle of accumulation. Reading about the pseudonyms Thompson used and the front men he employed to bid at auctions, the phoney book dealerships he set up, the dealers he duped and the lucky finds made by his men in the field, one gets a sense of the vicarious excitement Wellcome must have felt.

Thompson was an expert haggler, a skill he used to cannibalise other private collections. The most prized of these belonged to Evangelista Gorga, an Italian opera singer for whom Puccini had written the part of Rodolfo in La Bohème. Gorga retired at 34 to devote himself to his collection of medical instruments, which filled ten apartments in and around Rome and which Wellcome feared might form the basis of a museum to rival his own. Thompson met him soon after the First World War and reported that Gorga, who appeared in a dressing-gown, was ‘a wily and cunning-looking type of Italian’. He wanted £32,000 for his collection, roughly equivalent to Wellcome’s annual collecting budget, but Thompson stuck to his own price: ‘They generally come back,’ he wrote to Wellcome, ‘and you get the object in the end.’ Five years later, facing creditors and anxious to keep his collection together, Gorga agreed to sell his cache for £8000.

Under Thompson’s stewardship, the collection grew relentlessly. Consignments from across the British Empire were picked up from ports and train stations by a private fleet of vans, and squirrelled away in eight London warehouses. Wellcome later bought an enormous building in Willesden. ‘The factory was in a district unsurpassed for sordidness and desolation,’ one employee grumbled. ‘It lay between a tannery and an anchovy essence factory, and there were appalling smells (especially on Fridays).’

Later Wellcome became afraid that other American collectors would ‘sweep up the land’ before him. He instructed one of his agents not to come home until ‘India is completely ransacked as far as we possibly can for literature and other objects of interest connected with ancient medicine.’ The more he acquired, the higher the stakes seemed to become. Wellcome, who had begun his business career by marketing invisible ink, insisted that his employees maintain ‘the utmost discretion and secrecy’ at all times and warned them always to be ‘on guard’ against competing collectors, or the many dealers out to exploit his addiction.

Larson’s impressive scholarship allows us to see the internal coherence of Wellcome’s collection, but she downplays the oddity of the enterprise. Compared to such other collectors as William Lever, William Burrell or Pitt Rivers, Wellcome was the king of ragpickers. ‘Pawn shops, blacksmith shops and rag & bone dealers are amongst the most likely to yield results,’ he told Thompson. ‘The roughest places are often the best – but they require patience. Priests can do much for you.’ He hoarded everyday objects rather than the artistic treasures sought by other wealthy collectors and, though he created a museum in 1913 to house some of his collection, most of what he bought remained piled up in packing crates and on shelves in disorderly warehouses.

Larson says she has no interest in ‘trying to mine’ Wellcome’s ‘mental state’, and considers psychoanalytic explanations of collecting in general to be inadequate. But Wellcome himself described the primal scene on which he thought his collecting instinct was based: his discovery at the age of four of a Neolithic arrowhead. His father, an itinerant Adventist minister, explained that the sharp sliver of flint meant more to ancient people ‘than the invention of the electric telegraph or the steam railway engine meant to us’. Wellcome later wrote that this explanation ‘stimulated a babyish interest that lasted through my life’.

The collecting may partly have been compensatory: Wellcome went on spending sprees when he suffered loss or rejection, for example when he divorced his wife, Syrie, the daughter of the founder of Barnardo’s Homes. He married her when he was 48 and she was 22. It was a melancholy union, overshadowed by his collecting: ‘The greater part of our time has been spent,’ she wrote after they separated, ‘as he well knows, in places I detested collecting curios.’ When they were travelling in Ecuador on one such mission, Wellcome accused her of sleeping with a younger man and never spoke to her again. She denied the allegation, but Wellcome was too proud and uncompromising to contemplate the rapprochement his friends encouraged, not least for the sake of their son. (Syrie’s subsequent life was spent as Mrs Somerset Maugham.)

Wellcome wrote to his friends, asking that they never raise the matter with him again: ‘I shall try to drown my sorrow [illegible phrase, crossed out] by applying myself [illegible phrase, crossed out] in my life work – work is a great comforter.’ He returned to North Africa, where he had first courted Syrie, and travelled up the Blue Nile in search of the origins of civilisation, and then conducted an excavation at Jebel Moya in Sudan, hiring 4000 workers by the fourth season of the dig. Having already founded two tropical research laboratories in the region, he saw archaeology as a kind of missionary work and awarded any employees who managed to stay sober for two months with the Wellcome Order of the Peacock. Everything was carefully sifted and kept. ‘We were obliged to make a special compound and pile in it classified and labelled heaps of this useless rubbish,’ wrote one archaeologist more used to hunting for trophy pieces. Tons of stones, bones, coins and shards of pottery were shipped back to London.

Larson follows Wellcome’s first biographer, A.W.J. Haggis (whose sometimes unflattering book was commissioned and then spiked by Wellcome’s trustees in 1939), in thinking that what drove both his sponsorship of scientific research and his collecting was a desire for scholarly respect. Wellcome had left school at 13 to work in his uncle’s pharmacy and was riddled with intellectual insecurity. He dreamed of writing a magnum opus and hired a team of academics – including Thompson – to help him produce a book on the history and anthropology of medicine, but he never finished it. His collecting, which was initially supposed to provide source material, served as a form of procrastination, and he published only two inconsequential papers. As Larson puts it, he collected in order to ‘earn, or rather buy, a place within the academic community’.

In 1903, Wellcome announced his plan to hold a Historical Exhibition of Rare and Curious Objects relating to Medicine, Chemistry, Pharmacy and the Allied Sciences, timed to coincide with his company’s 25th anniversary two years later. He was such a perfectionist that his museum on Wigmore Street didn’t open for another decade. Even then it wasn’t open to the general public, whom Wellcome dismissed as ‘stragglers’, but only to medical professionals or people with letters of introduction from their doctors.

You entered through the Hall of Primitive Medicine, a room crammed with masks and shrunken skulls, fetish figures and a witchdoctor’s hut; then walked through a gallery illustrating the history of the microscope into an enormous room with statues of healing deities from around the world, and glass cases packed with surgical implements, toothbrushes, stethoscopes and charms; portraits of the great men of science looked down at you from a gallery. The basement contained an entire street of historic storefronts and reconstructed interiors – a Roman surgery, an apothecary’s shop, a Turkish drug store, a barber-surgeon’s shop – all manned by gory wax figures. (Wellcome was a friend of Madame Tussaud’s grandson and his subterranean chamber was praised by the London Nation as ‘a haunt of delightful horrors’.) Many of the scientists Wellcome hoped to impress criticised the kitsch nature of the attraction (Thompson had had the idea that all the museum attendants should be dressed in nurses’ uniforms): what was the good of such displays, they asked, if scholars weren’t allowed to handle and study the objects?

Wellcome guarded his collection jealously, and refused other researchers and even his own staff permission to publish anything about it; everyone working there had to sign a confidentiality agreement. This was ostensibly because he feared that publicity would push up market prices, but also because he wanted scholarly exclusivity over his enormous hoard. When Thompson ignored the embargo and co-wrote a book on the history of medicine, Wellcome stormed into his office, slammed the volume down on the desk and demanded his resignation. After 25 years of faithful service, Thompson was out the door and Wellcome embarked on another frenzy of collecting. Thompson’s successor, Louis Malcolm, was soon submerged in what Larson calls ‘the tide of new acquisitions’.

In 1932, Wellcome built an impressive neoclassical palace on the Euston Road to house his library, scientific laboratories and museum. Vans shuttled to and from Wigmore Street transporting the collection to its new home, where it was allotted four floors. Wellcome insisted on supervising the new displays but he was such a stickler for detail and so indecisive that, when he died in 1936, most of his prized possessions were still wrapped in newspaper in their packing boxes. He had dreamed of having the largest private museum in the country and hoped that his typological arrangement would offer researchers a way of regressing systematically back to the beginnings of the human race, but the perfect museum of his imagination was to elude him. In any case, as Larson shows, by that time such panoramic curatorial practices were long out of fashion.

It was only after his death that the extent of his collection became fully apparent, much of it damp, motheaten and worm-ridden in his Willesden warehouse. Twenty-seven auctions of a dizzying array of material, much of it junk, were held within a few years of his death. After the Second World War, when the Euston Road building became the firm’s headquarters (the City building had been bombed), the core of Wellcome’s medical collection was removed to a Georgian townhouse in Portman Square, while the rest was scattered around other museums, with curators invited to select items in a series of chaotic car boot sales. Among these bits and pieces was a small armoury: thousands of weapons were given away or sold, and more than six tons of shields, helmets, spears and guns carted away as scrap.

In the late 1970s, what remained of Wellcome’s Historical Medical Museum – about 100,000 objects – was given to the Science Museum on permanent loan. The Wellcome Trust retained only their founder’s 600,000-volume library and stash of more than 100,000 paintings, prints and photographs. Together, these form one of the most valuable resources available to anyone interested in the history of science. In 2003, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wellcome’s birth, curators at the British Museum, which absorbed a sizeable part of the collection, brought together a tiny fraction of the objects scattered in the diaspora (including Darwin’s whalebone walking stick, Napoleon’s toothbrush and Florence Nightingale’s moccasins) in an exhibition entitled Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome. It was a ghostly reminder of what might have been.

‘My plans exist in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle,’ Wellcome said of his illusory museum, ‘and gradually I shall be able to piece it together.’ But ‘it was easier for him to buy more things than attend to those he already had,’ Larson says, ‘and he never seems to have admitted to anyone, perhaps not even himself, that the objects he believed he was marshalling were gradually, inexorably, overwhelming him.’