Success Story from Sudan: Sir Henry Wellcome’s Tropical Research Laboratories

In 1870, at the age of 17, Henry Wellcome left his home in Wisconsin in the US mid-west and moved to neighboring Minnesota for work. Recognizing his potential, family friend William Mayo, one of the founders of the famous Mayo Clinic, encouraged Mr. Wellcome to head east to study at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.

Mr. Wellcome graduated in 1874 and boarded a ship for London in1880 to begin a partnership with his former college classmate, Mr. Silas Burroughs. The two created a very successful pharmaceutical firm, the Burroughs Wellcome Company. In 1895 Mr. Wellcome became the company’s sole proprietor when Mr. Burroughs died suddenly from pneumonia.

Quite wealthy, but also suffering from ailments that were helped by leaving cold, rainy London, in late 1900/early 1901, Mr. Wellcome traveled up the Nile through Egypt to Sudan. As he and his fellow travelers neared Khartoum, Mr. Wellcome was distressed by the unsanitary conditions he witnessed.

Always a go-getter, Mr. Wellcome believed that there was the possibility of making Khartoum as healthy as London, New York or any other city and that scientific research was the path to improved health and hygiene. He promptly offered the Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum state-of-the-art equipment for chemical and bacteriological laboratories.

Within a few years, the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories were known around the world for their innovative and excellent work and the many scientific papers arising from them. The Wellcome laboratories in Khartoum even served as the inspiration for other medical research institutions including, in 1914, the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine in India and, in 1928, the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory in Panama.

In 1928, the Bacteriological Section of the Wellcome laboratories moved to the (then British colonial) government-directed Stack Memorial Laboratories which were opened near the Khartoum Civil Hospital and Kitchener School of Medicine. The new location had more space for the expanding staff as well as easy access to hospital patients. By 1935, the Stack Memorial Laboratories had become an important center for vaccine creation and training Sudanese assistants and the official research home of the Sudan Medical Service. Although the laboratories no longer bore his name, Mr. Wellcome’s importance in advancing medicine, had been recognized in 1932, when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and knighted.

Sir Henry Wellcome passed away in July, 1936 leaving quite a legacy. During his lifetime he created the Wellcome Foundation and through his will he left substantial funds to create the Wellcome Trust (WT). The WT is currently the largest charitable organization in the UK and the largest grant-giving charity in the world. It supports medical research globally. The Gordon Memorial College merged with the Kitchener School of Medicine and was renamed the University of Khartoum, with the Stack Laboratories serving as the core of the Faculty of Medicine. Today the University of Khartoum is a top ranked institution in Sudan and Africa.

Many of the books that belonged to the former Directors of the original Wellcome Laboratories in Khartoum now grace the library shelves of facilities such as Sudan’s National Institute of Health. Teaching resources created by the first Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories’ Director Andrew Balfour initially were used to support the study of tropical medicine in the UK, but through substantial updates and the use of new technology are now assisting medical workers in more than 100 countries with low-cost, high quality learning materials.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why was Sir Henry Wellcome (and the Wellcome Laboratories and Trust) so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

From an early age Henry Wellcome had interest in other people and cultures. He traveled to South America for pharmaceutical research, Europe for business, and Africa for rest, improved health, and philanthropic work. He recognized that LIMITATIONS ARE LARGELY SET IN OUR OWN MINDS and that we must ACTIVELY PURSUE WHAT WE DESIRE TO SUCCEED. He did not have a victim mentality, but took responsibility for his own life.

Sir Henry Wellcome was ambitious and innovative. He set the highest standards, had a willingness to work hard AND WAS ALWAYS WORKING TOWARD A MAJOR GOAL AND SEVERAL MINOR ONES. By MODELING EXCELLENCE, he attracted the best and the brightest to work for him. Henry Wellcome also had a knack for identifying people who would rise to future prominence. These traits helped him to succeed in business, which in turn enabled him to have the funds to engage in philanthropy that was innovative and research-based.

Sir Henry Wellcome sought to generate new knowledge that would benefit humanity by gathering facts, identifying problems, studying options, identifying partners, and generating a plan of action, including methods for evaluation. The post-WWII trend toward adopting a non-strategic, non-scientific approach to philanthropy and international development assistance has led to a proliferation of vaguely defined and ineffective initiatives. Present day aid givers would do well to study Wellcome’s targeted giving of the past.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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