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History of the Wellcome Library


Henry Solomon Wellcome. Photograph by E Courret. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

A short history of the Wellcome Library from its foundation to the present day.

A brief history of the Library

The Library was founded on the collections of Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936).

Born in Almond, Wisconsin, Wellcome became a pharmaceutical salesman and moved to London in 1878 at the encouragement of Silas Burroughs, with whom he entered into partnership to create the firm of Burroughs Wellcome. The business flourished, and Wellcome became sole owner after Burroughs's death in 1895.

After the death of Burroughs, much of Wellcome’s energy was directed towards developing his collections. His main interest was focused on the history of medicine, including ancillary subjects such as alchemy, witchcraft, anthropology and ethnography.

He began collecting books seriously in the late 1890s, and artefacts shortly after. He used a succession of agents to amass materials at auction rooms, through dealers, and by travelling around the world to buy whatever could be found. He was obsessive about secrecy in the dealings of his agents, and insisted on a series of pseudonyms and subterfuges to conceal the true identity of his buyers from the trade.

The Library’s early years

Wellcome sought to create both a Library and a Museum, which he always appears to have envisaged as public resources rather than private collections, although neither was made properly accessible during his lifetime. In June 1913, the first temporary public exhibition of select objects from Wellcome's collection opened in 54a Wigmore Street, in the heart of the West End of London, next door to the main Burroughs Wellcome & Co. showroom. The Museum opened after the war for a series of exhibitions for medical congresses, helping Wellcome to gain acceptance by the medical world.

The Library was housed in a series of locations around London. As it grew, a succession of professional librarians was appointed during the 1920s and 1930s. It was not open to the public, although individual scholars were able to gain access on request. Significant collections acquired during this early period include:

  • The library of J F Payne, medical historian and Librarian of the Royal College of Physicians, purchased in 1911.
  • Over 100 items from the Kurt Wolff collection of incunabula, sold at auction in 1926.
  • The major part of the library of the Munich historian Ernst Darmstaedter, bought in 1930.
The Wellcome Historical Medical Library

Wellcome died in 1936. He bequeathed the bulk of his estate, including ownership of his pharmaceutical company and his collections, to a body of trustees, who formed the Wellcome Trust. Their primary duty was to use the income generated by the company to support ongoing biomedical research, but they were also charged with fostering the study of medical history through the care and maintenance of the collections.

A programme of sorting and rationalising began after Wellcome's death and lasted throughout the 1940s and beyond. This aimed to improve the subject focus and dispose of material that could not reasonably be classified as history of medicine.

In 1945 the Library was moved into the Wellcome Building on Euston Road, where it took over one of the rooms originally designed as a museum space. Readers began to be admitted by arrangement. In 1949 it was formally opened to the public as the Wellcome Historical Medical Library.

The Library had only a handful of staff, and money for new acquisitions was very limited - the pharmaceutical company (the Wellcome Foundation) was not doing very well at this time - but a period of steady progress ensued as the Library's services were developed and it became increasingly known as a public resource. Noel Poynter was appointed Librarian in 1954 and began a series of published catalogues of the Library's collections and the quarterly bibliography, 'Current Work in the History of Medicine'.

Originally attached to the company under the terms of Wellcome's will, the ownership of all the historical collections was formally transferred to the Wellcome Trust in 1960, bringing an improvement in financial support. The Library was extensively refurbished in 1962, and the main galleried Reading Room took the shape it retains today.

The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine

An increasing drive to develop the history of medicine as an academic discipline saw the creation of a small Trust-funded department, the Academic Unit. This formed one part of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine; the Library and Museum became part of the Institute in 1968. However, growing unease about the appropriateness of maintaining the museum collections under the Trust's wing led to a decision to transfer the remaining artefacts to the Science Museum, a process that began in the 1970s and concluded in 1982.

Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine

The Library's story during the later decades of the 20th century was one of continuing growth and development, with an ongoing acquisitions programme and expanding use.

A Contemporary Medical Archives Centre was formed in 1979 to collect records of important 20th-century medical organisations and individuals. A significant addition during the 1980s was the purchase of the manuscripts, and about 10 000 printed books, from the Medical Society of London Library.

The Wellcome Trust's activities around the history of medicine, and on the public understanding of science, were brought together in 1998 to create a new Medicine, Society and History Division that included the Library. The Trust’s Information Service (created to serve the Trust's internal needs and as a resource in the growing field of public understanding of science) was incorporated in 1998, and the Library widened its scope to included public understanding of science. The Medical Photographic Library, and Medical Film and Video Library also became part of the Library in 1998.

The Wellcome Institute was disbanded in 1999 and the Academic Unit was transferred to University College, London. Recognising a wider remit than the history of medicine, the Library was renamed in 1999 as the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine.

The Wellcome Collection

In 2004, the Library took up residence across the road at 210 Euston Road while the Wellcome Building was refurbished. It moved back to its historic home at 183 Euston Road in 2007 as part of the newly conceived Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Collection seeks to explore the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future; at its heart lies the curiosity that drove Henry Wellcome to amass his diverse collection.

In 2005 the Library was awarded ‘Designated status’ by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The award is given to museum and library collections considered to be an important part of the UK’s cultural and artistic heritage. Since then, the Wellcome Library’s collections have continually been added to, through purchase, gift and deposit.

In 2007 the Medical Photographic Library was relaunched as Wellcome Images, along with a new website and online database of digital images.

Over recent years the Library’s web presence has grown, and it has been involved in several online projects, most notably:

Since 2010 the Library been engaged in a large scale digitisation programme that reflects its commitment to global access to its collections.

In 2012, Wellcome Collection announced an investment of £17.5 million to create new spaces and improve facilities for visitors and researchers.

Find out more about Henry Wellcome's life and work.

Researching Henry Wellcome and his work

Burroughs Wellcome & Co advertisement for the 'Tabloid' medicine chest. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Researching objects from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum

Some members of staff of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, c.1915.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.