As today’s anniversary of Sir Henry Wellcome’s birth falls at a time of the year when many of our readers may still be on holiday, I thought we would take this opportunity to discuss Wellcome’s travels. In particular, I wanted to focus on the most important journey Wellcome ever undertook.
That claim can be contested: after all, this was a man who travelled across the Atlantic to London to set up in business with a fellow American pharmacist; who had a long and abiding interest in Africa and undertook four visits to the archaeological excavations he funded in Sudan – and that’s not forgetting the numerous collecting trips Wellcome undertook in Europe. However, it’s unlikely any of these travels could have taken place if Wellcome had not visited South America in 1878.
He was there in his role as an employee of McKesson and Robbins, an American pharmaceutical business, and his reason was to study the native Cinchona forests, the bark of that tree being the prime source of pure quinine – which was eagerly sought for its use in the treatment of malaria.
Wellcome’s impression of his travels in Ecuador to the border of Peru are recorded in an article and immortalised in this picture.
As Wellcome’s handwriting on the photograph states, he is on the mule on the left and on the right is J. Baez, his guide and interpreter.
Wellcome’s article, ‘A visit to the native cinchona forests of South America‘, is a combination of a romantic travelogue, a detailed natural history of the Cinchona tree and a contemporary perspective on the Cinchona bark trade. Even though he is charmed by the landscape he encountered, its physical dangers are never far away:
“Balmy, zephyr-like breezes greatly fan us into such a dreamy fanciful mood, that we could easily have imagined ourselves transported to a fairyland, were it not for the ravenous onslaughts of cannibalistic fleas and mosquitoes forcibly reminding us that we are yet beings of flesh and blood”.
Wellcome offers a highly detailed description of the Cinchona tree, its plant and also the processes involved in stripping the bark from the tree. However, he also points out the low pay of the indigenous population who are carrying out this work and indeed the effects the trade may have on the landscape:
“The track of country yielding the Cinchona is not so unlimited as some writers would give us to believe, nor is the supply inexhaustible; it is a fact recognised by natives and dealers, who are well informed about the extent and resources of the Cinchona bearing districts, that if the present ruinous system of destroying the trees is continued, and no effort made to propagate new growths, they will before many years be exterminated from their native soil”
What Wellcome doesn’t mention in his article is that for part of his expedition, he was in a good deal of pain. Details on this can be found in Robert Rhodes James’s biography of Wellcome, which quotes from an account Wellcome later made of the journey to his friend (and later colleague) Frederick Belding Power:
“It was Wellcome’s desire, while in Peru, to stand upon the very spot where the artist Frederick E Church painted his famous picture ‘The Heart of the Andes’. This desire was realised, but to his great physical discomfort, for, as he brought his mule to a standstill, the animal lost footing, slipped, and fell over the embankment. Mr Wellcome was painfully injured…”
Wellcome’s article was one of nine papers he wrote in the 1870s for the pharmaceutical trade. It was by the far the most important: published first in 1879 in the Proceedings of the American Pharmaceutical Association and then reprinted in the Pharmaceutical Journal of Great Britain, it established his name amongst his pharmaceutical peers on both sides of the Atlantic.
A major stepping stone in his career, Wellcome’s travels to South America – and the reception his article about the journey received – mark a defining stage in his career.
Author: Ross Macfarlane is Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.