The Story of Henry Wellcome and Burroughs Wellcome & Company


Here is an excerpt from our new book, Intelligent Fanatics: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:

A Famous Hunch For Talent: Henry Wellcome

Burroughs Wellcome & Co.

“Born in a log cabin to a poor farmer, Henry Wellcome brought innovations such as tablets to pharmacy and went on to be a giant of the medical industry.”

—Robin McKie, “Henry Wellcome: From Backwoods Boy to Medicine Man”

Gallup Inc., the research-based firm in the United States, annually surveys Americans to rate their perception of twenty-five industries. Each year since 2003, the pharmaceutical industry has consistently gotten one of the lowest scores, not too far from that of the government (the lowest). Prices on specialty drugs have gotten out of control and consumers have rightfully complained. Valeant Pharmaceuticals was the poster child for the price-hiking practice and was severely penalized. The company’s total disregard for those who desperately needed their drugs, a clear win-lose proposition, led to the company’s downfall. Such practices were not the norm in the pharmaceutical industry’s beginning.

Henry Wellcome was born in Almond, Wisconsin, on August 21, 1853. Henry’s father, Solomon Wellcome, had moved his family to Almond based on the stories he had heard of the vast new opportunities in the West. Solomon would purchase a farm, but farming proved to be difficult. The failure of the potato crop in 1861 left the family bankrupt and forced Solomon to move his family again, to a better area. His brother Jacob was working as a doctor and operated a pharmacy in Minnesota. Solomon was convinced that Minnesota was his family’s next home.

The opportunities for a young man were extremely limited in Garden City, Minnesota. Fortunately, Henry Wellcome would stumble upon a mentor who would guide him to accomplish much larger goals. This individual would also sow the seeds of the most successful medical institution the world has seen, in the last century, and indirectly influence another intelligent fanatic in this book, Dr. Devi Shetty. The new mentor was Dr. William Worrall Mayo, the father of William and Charles Mayo, who would later found the famous Mayo Clinic.

Old Dr. Mayo was a personal friend and a professional colleague of Jacob Wellcome [Henry’s Uncle], beginning during the Sioux Uprising. Mayo noticed the eager curiosity in young Henry and encouraged him in his studies. On Dr. Mayo’s recommendation, Henry would move to Rochester, Minnesota, and work for Poole and Geisinger, the pharmacy immediately below Mayo’s office. There, Henry worked long hours for modest wages as a prescription clerk. It helped him to be closer to his mentor, Dr. Mayo. Additionally, at Poole and Geisinger’s, Henry would receive the following advice from Mayo, “Don’t be content with the life of a poorly trained small town druggist.”3 That advice, along with Dr. Mayo’s many other lessons, was life-changing for Henry. Wellcome stated on his deathbed that he owed everything to the “inspiration, kindness, teaching and advice of Will and Charlie’s father [Dr. William Worrall Mayo].”4

He, Henry Wellcome, would go on to build one of the first pharmaceutical businesses on win-win relationships. Like other quality intelligent fanatic–led organizations, Henry’s business, Burroughs Wellcome & Co. (B&W), created a brand that was trusted, highly respected, and revered by everyone. In addition to achieving many awards of excellence, the company received positive reviews from pharmacists. One example was one of the many valentines published to the manufacturer, in the magazine Chemist and Druggist of February 25, 1893:

Oh, Burroughs! Oh, Wellcome! Oh, Blest!

Thy charms are tabloids compressed.

In Snow Hill they’re made,

And for every trade

They’re the purest, tho’ dearest, p’r’aps best.

Oh, Burroughs! Oh, Wellcome, divine!

Thy tabloids, like stars, ever shine

In Europe, in Asia,

And fair Australasia, In Africa, like my Valentine.1

You’d never expect anyone, aside from shareholders, maybe, to have the same high regard for Valeant Pharmaceuticals or other, similar drug companies prior to 2015. Win-lose relationships, found at any point in a company’s stakeholder relations, will not create a long-term, sustainable business. As when harvesting wheat, the tallest stalks—those that stick their heads up and have clear win-lose propositions—are the ones that get the scythe. Henry Wellcome’s business thrived due to the company’s adherence to win-win relationships.

So who is Henry Wellcome? How did he go from a log cabin and destitute living conditions to building one of the giants of the pharmaceutical industry? His company lives on today as part of GlaxoSmithKline.

His legacy also lives on in the form of the Wellcome Trust, the second wealthiest charitable foundation in the world, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The trust is said to be the one of the largest providers of non-governmental scientific research funding in the world, and has distributed billions of pounds since Henry Wellcome’s death, in 1936.

It all came down to Henry’s tenacious courage, unflagging focus on building a world-class drug research institution, respectable prices, and his ability to attract, train, and motivate the brightest minds in the pharmaceutical industry.

You can read Henry Wellcome’s story in our latest book, Intelligent Fanatics: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Become a Member and we’ll send you the eBook-Kindle version for Free.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Beware When Studying Greatness