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A Wellcome Home for Curious Discoveries

Wellcome Building, exteriors. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Two buildings – one modern, glass and steel, the other more Classical in Portland stone – stand side by side above Euston Square tube station. The first houses the offices of the Wellcome Trust, while its neighbour is one of London’s newest must-see museums, Wellcome Collection.

Founded in 1936, the Wellcome Trust’s mission has always been to advance medical research, improve health and understand the history of medicine. By 1965, it was a small but active charity, having given away around £10 million in its first three decades to build research labs in universities and support scientists, particularly those working on tropical medicine. But 1965 was also something of a turning point in the Trust’s history.

The Trust had been set up as the sole shareholder in Wellcome Foundation Ltd, a global pharmaceutical business run by Sir Henry Wellcome until his death in 1936. Much of the income in the early years of the Trust was spent reorganising his affairs and paying duties on his sizeable estate.

From the 1960s, though, the amounts available to spend on charitable activities rose spectacularly as the business pursued a pioneering approach to developing drugs. Using their new methods of ‘rational drug design’, Wellcome scientists in America invented the first effective drug for leukaemia, as well as treatments to suppress the immune system ready for organ transplants.

The success of these innovative drugs led to a huge jump in profits for the Wellcome Trust to use – by the 1980s, its charitable grants were worth £28m a year.

Photograph of Dr Gertrude Elion and Dr George Hitchings Credit:Wellcome Library, London

Gaining independence

Over the next 20 years or so, the Trust sold off its shares in the Wellcome business, which through takeovers and mergers has since become part of GlaxoSmithKline. While the Trust’s ties to the pharmaceutical company were cut, selling the shares generated a considerable financial endowment from which the Trust could fund its work independently and in perpetuity. This enabled the Trust to invest heavily in the Human Genome Project, for example, and to support the development of artemisinin, a much-needed drug for malaria.

Today, the Trust spends about £750m each year, mostly in the form of grants to researchers in universities and healthcare companies. The research we fund ranges from understanding the basic biology of the body to developing new tools and treatments for diseases, as well as exploring social and ethical issues around medicine and research. We also support artists and educators to engage people with science more generally. Our funding supports around 10,000 researchers working in 77 countries, although most are based in the UK – including quite a few in Camden (at University College London in particular).

It’s quite a change from 50 years ago. In an official report for 1964-66, the Trust was proud that it had received 500 visitors; these days, with its exhibitions, cafes and events, Wellcome Collection receives 500,000 visitors every year.

183 and 215 Euston Road Credit:Wellcome Library, London
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Wellcome Research Institute,1932 Credit: Wellcome Library, London

‘Incurably curious’

The Wellcome Building (the stone one with the Ionic columns) was built by Sir Henry Wellcome in the early 1930s to house some of his personal collections – he owned about 1.5 million medical and anthropological artefacts – and a medical library. But when the Wellcome company’s headquarters in Holborn were bombed during World War 2, the business moved to the Euston Road and Henry’s artefacts were mostly stored away.

The Trust always had its own separate offices – first near Harley Street in central London and then, from 1974 to 1992, on Park Square West just outside Camden. But with increased funds from the company’s profits came a need for the Trust to take on more people to administer its grants. The company HQ had by this time moved elsewhere, leaving the Wellcome Building clear for the Trust (which also made use of other buildings nearby on Euston Road).

In 2004, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Gibbs Building next to the Wellcome Building. This glass and steel construction was built to accommodate all of the Trust’s staff, while the Wellcome Building was transformed into Wellcome Collection, which opened in 2007.

Just last year, a second transformation further extended the number of galleries and other public spaces in Wellcome Collection, which has proved to be an incredibly popular cultural destination. And it is all free and open to anyone who is, like Sir Henry and us, ‘incurably curious’ about the connections between medicine, life and art.

Michael Regnier Science Writer, Wellcome Trust

Dynamic staircase, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Trust

For more information and to get involved with the free activities at the Wellcome Collection, take a look at their website HERE.