Henry Wellcome

History of Wellcome

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. He left us three things in his will: his wealth, his collection of historical medical items, and a mission to improve health through research.

Wellcome Trust  

The Wellcome Trust was founded in 1936, in accordance with Henry Wellcome’s will, to improve health by supporting scientific research and the study of medicine. Funding for this mission came from the profits of the pharmaceutical business he had built up over 50 years.

In 1880, Silas Burroughs and Henry Wellcome, two pharmaceutical salesmen from America, started a new company in London called Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. They used mass production and proactive marketing to sell remedies and medicines throughout the UK and territories colonised by the British, building the company’s reputation on scientific rigour. 

Henry Wellcome became a wealthy and prominent figure in the growth of the modern pharmaceutical industry. After his death in 1936 (Silas Burroughs had died in 1895), the company became the property of the newly formed Wellcome Trust, which used the profits to fund charitable activities supporting research related to health.

Despite financial difficulties after World War II, the business began to thrive again, pioneering a new approach to drug design. Successful products included the first leukaemia drug, immune suppressants for organ transplants, and antivirals such as AZT, the first drug approved to treat HIV.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the Wellcome Trust decided to sell the company, which is now part of GlaxoSmithKline and no longer has any ownership or governance relationship with Wellcome. We do work with GlaxoSmithKline, as we work with many other healthcare companies, when it helps us to achieve our mission.

The considerable proceeds from the sale gave the Wellcome Trust financial independence. Today, we invest in a wide range of financial assets around the world, and the returns from our portfolio – currently worth around £38 billion – fund everything we do.

Find out how we invest responsibly.

Wellcome Collection  

Henry Wellcome’s collection was a vast personal project, the privilege of a wealthy white man in the Victorian era. He travelled the world (and sent others on his behalf) to acquire items relating to his interest in 'the art and science of healing throughout the ages'. Over the years, he bought millions of objects, only a fraction of which were ever displayed in his medical history exhibitions. 

This kind of collecting relied on and fuelled a market for such items that was driven by colonial activities and open to exploitative trading. Many objects were taken out of their social and cultural context and used to sustain a narrative that assumed European superiority. 

After Henry Wellcome's death, much of his collection was dispersed to other museums and collectors, though we still have thousands of objects in our care, as well as other items acquired since 1936. These form the basis of exhibitions and research at Wellcome Collection, our free museum and library that opened in 2007 to explore health and human experience.

Wellcome Collection today strives to connect the objects in our collections with people whose experiences can help us to understand the meanings they hold today. Information about the actions we are taking, and the principles that guide them, is on Wellcome Collection's website.

Wellcome’s mission  

Wellcome is an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health through research. Although the way we deliver our mission has evolved since 1936, science has always been at the heart of it.

For the first 30 years, a small Board of Trustees based in the UK considered all applications for funding. Grants were given to set up new laboratories and support academic posts, particularly in pharmacology and tropical medicine. Travel grants promoted collaboration between researchers in the UK and other countries, often nations where research in tropical medicine had been an aspect of British colonialism.

In 1967, Wellcome began to focus more on supporting individual researchers rather than buildings and equipment. This meant more applications to process, and a larger staff to administer the charity’s activities. Spending continued to increase, funding more research units outside the UK as well as a number of units at UK universities to study the history of medicine.

After the sale of the company was completed in 1995, Wellcome became one of the largest grant-giving charities in the world. As well as hugely increasing our support for individuals and research centres, we began funding projects taking scientific advances and inventions towards clinical trials, and increased our support for public engagement with science. And we were able to set up – in partnership or independently – large-scale initiatives such as the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which sequenced one-third of the Human Genome Project. 

Today, Wellcome supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We have four programmes of work: one for discovery research, and three to find solutions for the challenges of mental health, climate and health, and infectious diseases.

Read more about our vision and strategy.