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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Richard Fortey
An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World
By Frances Larson (Oxford University Press 320pp 18.99)

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There is a familiar story about a sad and lonely man filling up an entire house with bric-a-brac until he is obliged to crawl about inside it like a mole, searching for an unfilled corner. Collecting can develop into a disease. Grander collections demand endless money to feed the infection, but the symptoms are similar: an inability to throw anything away, a reluctance to organise what has already been bought in the mad drive to collect still more, and a pathological secretiveness. Henry Wellcome, renowned philanthropist and founder of a pharmaceutical empire, filled whole warehouses with crates of his purchases. Every crate was packed in turn with numerous objects - hundreds of pestles and mortars, dozens of spears, pillboxes, jujus, nave paintings, African masks, stone tools. He wanted to collect the entire history of mankind.

It all started modestly enough. The history of medicine was a neglected topic at the end of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the contemporary burgeoning of natural history and anthropological museums, Wellcome wished to create an exhibition laying out the story of medical treatment through the objects of the trade. The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum eventually opened in June 1913 in Wigmore Street, to general acclaim. Apothecaries' lairs and Turkish drugstores were reconstructed down to the last suppository, and the barbarous practices of the past were contrasted with the enlightened treatments of the twentieth century (Wellcome was quite capable of promoting his own products). The museum was intended as a scholarly collection, and visitors even needed a letter of introduction to gain admission. Wellcome was buying himself academic respectability. Like many a self-made man, he had ambitions for his intellectual legacy.

But even by 1913 Wellcome's compass was worryingly comprehensive. As he later put it: 'I have for many years been collecting for the purpose of demonstrating by means of objects that will illustrate ... every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life up to the fully developed man of today.' This was hardly a recipe for excluding objects. As Wellcome became more successful he entrusted his collecting to agents who scoured the auction rooms, bidding on his behalf, or went on buying trips to remote areas of India, or even negotiated to purchase housefuls of stuff. His able lieutenant Charles Thompson amassed a vast array of anthropological material alongside entire chemist-shop fronts, and then there were statuary, letters, and endless rare books, especially concerning early medicine. Warehouses began to fill up; some of the crates were never unpacked before Wellcome's death in 1936.

Wellcome began to collect collections. He found virtue in sheer numbers, and never minded duplicates, lest anything should get away. At the same time, he became paranoid about other collectors. The excitement was in the chase, the victorious purchase ahead of a rival, and curation could be deferred. Detailed documentation could wait for the completion of the ever-expanding great project. Making objects available for study by scholars also went against the grain: it was fine in theory, but Wellcome always liked to keep things secret and wanted acknowledgement when he didn't. He felt he could buy authorship of learned monographs as he might kit out a laboratory. Meanwhile, the boxes piled ever higher.

An unflattering picture of Sir Henry Wellcome emerges from Frances Larson's excellent book. Despite his huge wealth he was always on the lookout for a bargain; indeed, he was particularly pleased if he could get something for nothing (after all, he argued, it was for scholarship's sake). He was prepared to bide his time for a cheap deal, instructing his agents to 'stalk' likely prospects. His collecting mania may have helped to poison his short marriage to Syrie, Dr Barnardo's daughter. She went on briefly to marry Somerset Maugham, and Wellcome never mentioned her name again. Charles Thompson served Wellcome loyally for decades, grinding bargains out of other major collectors and despatching minions into the corners of the empire in search of esoterica, but when he finally fell foul of his employer Wellcome sacked him without hesitation. Wellcome expected his employees to work as hard as he did and never recognised his mortality, nor their individuality. As long as he could keep collecting, he would never die.

When finally he did, his collection was disbanded. It took decades to prise open all the crates; some 1,300 cases were dispersed between 1949 and 1954. There was enough to supply a dozen museums; the Science Museum received 100,000 artefacts, including 25,000 surgical instruments; much bigger collections went to Bloomsbury. The Ulster Museum received more than two tons of stone tools alone. Sotheby's disposed of 6,200 weapons. In 1943, even the militaria that were regarded as 'fit for scrap' weighed six tons. The greatest ever private collection of human artefacts was spread around the world from which it had once been gleaned, or 'ransacked', to use one of Sir Henry's favourite words. The library alone survives in its essentials. Wellcome's own pretensions to write out human history in endless galleries of artefacts had foundered on his unremitting acquisitiveness.

Except that it did not quite work out like that. The Wellcome Trust now funds more biomedical research than any other non-governmental source. The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine employs the kind of distinguished academics that the old man never quite trusted. There is a clutch of Wellcome professors. In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened on Euston Road - but of the objects on display only a couple of hundred are from the great collection itself. It is paradoxical that the Wellcome name lives on primarily as a payer of people rather than as a magnificent, rambling panoply of things.

Those of us who work with collections have been warned: it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Frances Larson has done us a service in chasing out the story of this ultimate collector. As to whether there are neo-Wellcomes today, I recently heard of a wealthy Chinese who has devoted much of his fortune to amassing a vast collection of memorabilia pertaining to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He sends his agents out into the villages to acquire documents from the peasantry, just like Wellcome. But perhaps in this case a parade of objects really will spell out history in so many words.

Richard Fortey FRS was formerly a senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum. He has written six books, the latest being 'Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum'.