August 21st, 2013 marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Wellcome. This month also marks the centenary of one of the most important events in Wellcome’s life: August 1913 was the month that the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum first opened its doors. Perhaps that should be “finally opened its doors” as Wellcome first started advertising to the medical profession in the early 1900s, his desire to hold an exhibition on the history of medicine based upon material he had begun to collect in the 1890s.
It was at the suggestion of his principal collecting agent C. J. S. Thompson, that Wellcome timed the opening of this exhibition with the XVIIth International Congress of Medicine, which was to be held in London in 1913. In fact, Wellcome’s exhibition would be adopted as the Museum of the Congress’s Section of the History of Medicine. Wellcome himself delivered a paper at the Congress, entitled ‘Greco-Roman surgical instruments represented in Egyptian sculpture’ – a rare instance of Wellcome actually giving a formal presentation based upon his collecting interests (a draft of the paper is held in the Wellcome Archives).
The museum was visited by many of the International Congress’s 7000 delegates and after closing for a minor rearrangement, was reopened on a permanent basis as the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Prior to the opening of the Congress a formal Opening Ceremony was held for the museum. The details of the speeches made on that evening – preserved in a number of different books and archive materials in the Wellcome Library – give a fascinating insight into how Wellcome’s museum was immediately received by the medical establishment.
In the formal address, delivered by Sir Norman Moore, President of the Section of the History of Medicine at the Congress, the museum was placed in context, with Wellcome being compared to other collectors, such as the Tradescants, Sir Hans Sloane and William and John Hunter. Moore’s address also offered a tour of a number of rooms of the museum, including the Hall of Statuary, the Portrait Gallery and the recreations of a barber-surgeons and an apothecary shop. In his vote of thanks, Sir Rickman Godlee, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, contrasted the museum with Wellcome’s interests in the field of Tropical Medicine, in particular his Tropical Research Laboratories in Khartoum. In the last speech of the evening, Wellcome received the vote of thanks and in his closing words, set out his aims for his museum:
In organising this Museum, my purpose has not been simply to bring together a lot of “curios” for amusement. This collection is intended to be useful to students and useful to all those engaged in research. I have found that the study of the roots and foundations of things greatly assists research, and facilitates discovery and invention.
Being hailed by the great and the good of the British medical establishment was a long way from the plains of Wisconsin and Wellcome’s childhood in Mid-West, mid-19th century America, but it serves to illustrate the monetary success and self-development that Wellcome attained by the time of his 60th birthday. At an age when many people might begin to ponder slowing down, it could be said that Wellcome – with the opening of his Historical Medical Museum – was coming into his own.