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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Wellcome Collection Museum in London

What is the Welcome Collection?

Neoclassical palace that houses a library and museum dedicated to the history of medicine.

Wellcome Collection exterior

Wellcome Collection History

We live with the knowledge that we will become ill, and experience suffering. We know that our bodies will become faulty and irregular with age. But whether by science, superstition, or a mixture of the two, humans have always tried to combat these inevitabilities. The Wellcome Collection displays objects which explore these human responses to the failing body and ‘aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health’.

One such object is a tobacco resuscitator kit from 18th-century London, which includes a finely fashioned set of bellows. It was supplied by the Royal Humane Society and was available at various points along the river to treat the near-drowned. With hindsight, it seems obvious that blowing warm tobacco smoke up the patient’s rectum wasn’t an effective strategy. But there was method in this apparent madness. Those who had drowned were thought to have suffered from an excess of cold and wet bodily ‘humours’ (the four primordial substances into which the Greek physician Hippocrates first organised the body’s interior; as is evident, the theory held weight even in the 18th century). Introducing a warm, dry substance such as tobacco smoke was thought to restore balance – the necessary condition of all remedies.

The resuscitator kit belonged to a certain pharmacologist, Henry Wellcome. In 1881, aged 27, Wellcome moved into a London town house that had previously belonged to an Indian Raja. Wellcome brought with him his collection of ethnographic artefacts, acquired from his career as a travelling drugs salesman in the Americas. The Raja had left his mark on the interior of the house, and Wellcome was delighted that his eclectic collection now had a suitable home.

Over his lifetime, Wellcome’s collecting would become an obsession: his marriage was unhappy, and he became estranged from his business partner and friends. Yet at the time of his death in 1936 he had collected over a million objects. Wellcome’s father was an Adventist minister, and his compulsion to collect was strongly driven by an evangelical curiosity about so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. One of his ethnographic interests was with a native American community in Alaska, to which he referred condescendingly in a book on the subject as ‘the poor groping, savage, with inferior intellect’. Such attitudes were clearly influenced not only by Adventism but also by his childhood in Minnesota. As a child, he collected artefacts belonging to the Native Sioux population of the Midwest, and experienced the Sioux uprising of 1862. Their dubious origins, or the unease of the beliefs that inspired their collection, cast a shade over many objects in the Wellcome Collection. Recently the museum has started to acknowledge the strange and often troubling aspects of its history.

In 1932, Wellcome built a neoclassical palace on the Euston Road to house his library, scientific laboratories and museum. However, when he died four years later, many of his objects were still wrapped up in their packing boxes, and the majority of his collection was auctioned off or dispersed to other museums. Following Wellcome’s death, the Wellcome Trust was founded, in accordance with his will, ‘to improve health by supporting scientific research and the study of medicine’, and is now one of the largest providers of non-governmental funding for scientific research in the world. Finally in 2007, 75 years after his death, the Wellcome Collection was opened in the same neoclassical palace, an impressive nine-storey museum advertised as a ‘destination for the incurably curious’.

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