History of Wellcome

The pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector Sir Henry Wellcome died in 1936. On his death, his will established a charity for "the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind's wellbeing".

Our founder

Sir Henry Wellcome was born on the American frontier in 1853. Pharmacy interested him from a young age.

Henry Wellcome wearing a canoeing costume, which includes a smart jacket with buttons and lapels.

Wellcome Images

Henry Wellcome in canoeing costume, c.1884

In 1880 he moved to the UK with his old friend Silas Burroughs to found a pharmaceutical company. They soon built the company into a multinational enterprise.

Wellcome became a leading figure in the British pharmaceutical industry. He established two laboratories: one physiological and one chemical. Through them, he proved that pharmaceutical research could lead to better medicines.

In his lifetime, Wellcome-funded scientists developed antitoxins for tetanus, diphtheria and gas gangrene. They also isolated histamine, leading to antihistamine production, and standardised insulin and other medicines.

Wellcome was fascinated by the "art and science of healing throughout the ages". He was a voracious collector of items and objects relating to the history of medicine. By the time he died, he owned more objects than many of Europe's most famous museums.

The acceptance of the Trust could only be regarded as a public duty – a duty not only to the past, to carry out the wishes of the testator of a philanthropic vision, but also to the future, to the various work with unimagined possibilities which may be started as a result of this inheritance. The British Medical Journal on the foundation of the Wellcome Trust, 1936

The Wellcome Trust

The first 50 years (1936–86)

When Sir Henry Wellcome died in 1936, his will provided for the creation of a charity.

The charity's main asset was the share capital of Sir Henry's company, Wellcome Foundation. He wanted the charity to use the profits from the company to advance medical research and its history.

The Trust's charitable spending started low, totalling £1.2 million in the first 20 years. It increased quickly between 1952 and 1986, as Wellcome Foundation's sales grew from £10m to over £500m.

Much of this growth was thanks to the drugs discovered by George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion. Their team pioneered rational drug design at the company's research labs in the USA. 

They developed the first leukaemia drug and immune system suppressants for organ transplants. Elion’s research was also essential in developing acyclovir, which stops the herpes virus replicating. Her colleagues later used the same principle to develop AZT, the first drug approved to treat HIV.

By 1985 the Wellcome Foundation was worth £1 billion. This led to a huge increase in the Wellcome Trust's scientific research funding. The Trust's grant allocation then was around £26.5m a year.

Sale of the company (1987–2007)

Until the 1980s, the Wellcome Trust was the only shareholder of the Wellcome Foundation.

In 1986 the Wellcome Foundation was floated on the stock market under a new name: Wellcome plc. The Wellcome Trust sold a quarter of its holdings in the company.

This was followed by a second share sale in 1992. Then, in 1995, the Wellcome Trust sold most of the remaining interest in Wellcome plc to Glaxo plc. This created Glaxo Wellcome plc, which merged with SmithKlineBeecham in 2000 to create GlaxoSmithKline.

By selling the shares, the Wellcome Trust’s assets grew from £3.4bn in 1988 to £15bn in 2000. Our average annual charitable spend grew from £28m in the 1980s to £650m in 2007.

In 2004 the Wellcome Trust moved to new headquarters, the Gibbs Building at 215 Euston Road. In 2007 we opened Wellcome Collection, the free visitor destination for the incurably curious. Its exhibitions and public events explore the connections between medicine, life and art.

Wellcome today

Wellcome has continued to grow. By 2015, our investment portfolio was worth £18.3 billion. Learn more about our investments, past and present.

Learn more about us – our recent activities and the ideas we've backed. And read our strategy to see how we choose which projects to support.

More information

The books listed here are all available at the Wellcome Library in Euston, London.


Learn more about our investments, past and present.

Wellcome Collection

You can see some of Henry Wellcome's collected items at Wellcome Collection, our free museum and visitor destination.