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 ’.

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