Wellcome Collection is inspired by and originates with Sir Henry Wellcome: a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector of more than one million objects from around the world. He was fascinated by the “art and science of healing throughout the ages.” After Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936, the collection was overseen by his Trustees. Significant numbers of the objects originally amassed were dispersed during the mid-twentieth century, and now reside in over 70 other institutions worldwide. London’s Science Museum has managed the rest of Wellcome’s historic medical objects since the mid-1970s.
Henry Wellcome’s founding collection of books, paintings and manuscripts remains in the Wellcome Trust’s care and has been developed subsequently through significant and ongoing acquisitions. The collections as they are constituted today represent the broad themes of health and the human condition in historical, social and cultural contexts. They span many centuries and are global in their scope. The collections are outstanding as a historical, evidential and cultural resource of national and international importance in the field.
Wellcome Collection is housed in the fine neo-classical style Wellcome Building (183, Euston Road) which was built to Sir Henry's specifications in 1932, and was home to all his non-commercial pursuits. He dreamed about displaying his collection here. Years after his death, thanks to his legacy, the building is now the home of his collections, while next door (215 Euston Rd) houses the headquarters of his charitable foundation, the Wellcome Trust, whose mission is to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.
History of medicine and health
Archives and Manuscripts:
Wellcome Collection offers the most extensive specialist resource for the history of Western medicine in Britain. Archive holdings currently comprise over 800 archive collections of personal papers of significant figures, such as Edward Jenner, Florence Nightingale, Marie Stopes, Francis Crick and John Sulston, and organisational archives from the United Kingdom and Europe (collecting continues). We also hold records of health-related charities, campaigning organisations and pressure groups, as well as the records of professional bodies, businesses and research institutions. Sir Henry Wellcome's personal papers, the records of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and material on the pharmaceutical firm he co-founded are also housed here, as are the corporate archives of the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Foundation Ltd., and other predecessor and related organisations and associated individuals. Archives may include unpublished material, drafts, notes, letters and photographs in both analogue and born-digital formats. There are internationally significant holdings in various subjects, including: genetics and heredity, mental health, birth control and public health. Though medicine provides the unifying theme, a wide range of subjects relating to the history of European science and culture are also represented.
Our manuscript collections include around 21,000 manuscripts in over 50 different languages, and many different scripts, dating from antiquity to the present day. Holdings include medieval manuscripts, domestic recipe books dating from the 16th century onwards. The collections range widely across the cultures of Europe, Asia and Africa, and cover topics as diverse as astronomy, astrology, chronology, cookery, herbalism, divination, the interpretation of dreams, mythology, magic, medicine, philosophy and religion. Highlights include the earliest document in the Library: a medical prescription from ancient Egypt (c.1100BCE); the ‘Iskander horoscope’, a Persian manuscript produced in 1411 for Iskander Sultan (1384-1415), grandson of Tamerlane; Burmese illustrated manuscripts depicting the life of the Buddha; exquisite examples of Islamic calligraphy and the largest accumulation of Jain religious manuscripts outside India. The diversity of content is matched by the variety of materials used, from metal to bamboo, bone, ivory, silk, paper and palm leaf.
The Iconographic Collection is one of the largest collections of this type anywhere in the world. It contains more than 250,000 prints, drawings, paintings, photographs and works in other media, dating from the 14th century to the present (collecting continues). Though there are many works by famous and renowned artists, from its inception the focus of the iconographic collection has tended to be the subject matter, rather than their aesthetic or technical qualities, and as such forms a documentary resource reflecting the historical and cultural contexts of health.
The collection houses around 1500 paintings that range from altarpieces, icons, votive works and Tibetan thangkas, to portraits and genre scenes. Drawings include works by well-known artists as diverse as Michelangelo and William Heath Robinson. Some works were created in therapeutic contexts, or were created by artists in response to health concerns.
The extensive collection of prints covers all periods and techniques, from woodcut to silk screen. Their subjects range from caricatures satirising doctors or other authority figures, to advertisements for long-forgotten remedies.
The photographic holdings are equally extensive. They include Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s first nine X-ray photographs (1895) and John Thomson’s negatives of his photographs of China, Cambodia, Thailand and Cyprus (c.1870), as well as a large number of modern medical photographs.
Printed and published rare materials:
Include our significant holdings of printed books, ephemera and pamphlets produced before 1851. In addition to around 70,000 monographs (including over 600 pre-1501 books, and over 5000 16th-century books), the collection includes more than 900 pamphlets and 700 items of ephemera. Many of the works were originally aimed at medical and health practitioners, reflecting a variety of medical traditions, past and present. Subject matter covered includes all aspects of medical science and practice including anatomy and physiology, clinical medicine, dentistry, military and naval medicine, popular and alternative remedies, psychology, public health and sanitation, surgery, tropical medicine, veterinary medicine, alchemy, botany, chemistry, cookery, genetics and heredity, pharmacy, sexology and zoology, ethnographic works, travellers’ tales, exercise and diet manuals, and guides to health resorts. The collection also holds many official publications, including the most complete set of Medical Officer of Health reports in the United Kingdom. Items represent early printing in Europe, the Americas and Asia, and the texts appear in numerous different languages. Much of the collection is vividly illustrated, and some material is very rare or indeed unique, including an exceptional collection of 16th-century anatomical sheets with movable flaps (“fugitive sheets”). A proportion of the collection, comprising many twentieth and twenty first century titles, is available to browse on the open shelves in the Library.
This collection contains over 35,000 single sheet or small pamphlet items (collecting continues), including pharmaceutical and medical product literature, public health information leaflets, campaign literature, patient support advice, postage stamps, ballads and songs, Victorian ‘freak show’ souvenir postcards and sex-worker’s business cards. Subject matter ranges from 18th-century notices about plague, smallpox and cholera to contemporary information leaflets about diet, hygiene, health services.
Moving Image and Sound Collection:
The Wellcome’s film, video and sound collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It covers all aspects of medicine, health and welfare throughout the 20th century and beyond. It consists of unique AV collections of education and training films made for professional audiences, productions made for organisations (such as Scope and the British Dental Association, British Medical Association to the Thalidomide Society, Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton), as well as a large number of public health information films, and broadcast radio and television programmes. Highlights include a film of Henry Wellcome’s archaeological excavations in the Sudan, 1912-13, and early clinical films about shell shock in World War One. The Moving Image and Sound Collection can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/user/WellcomeFilm/playlists.
- Over 800 archive collections and 21,000 individual manuscripts
- 250,000 prints, drawings, paintings, photographs and art works in other media
- 70,000 monographs
- 35,000 ephemera items
- Our film, video and audio collection is one of the largest of its kind. It covers all aspects of medicine, health and welfare throughout the 20th century and beyond.
- Around 15,000 journal titles