How invisible ink led to the invention of the tabloid

25 Jul

Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, born on 21st August 1853 in Wisconsin, his father was a farmer and a missionary who was forced to move his family to Minnesota in 1861 after his potato crop failed.

Henry’s uncle, Jacob Wellcome, was a successful doctor, and just as Henry was celebrating his 9th birthday he witnessed the Sioux uprising of 1862 and helped his uncle tending to the wounded.  This early fascination with medicine, and his religious upbringing would shape the rest of Henry’s life.

16 year old Henry ready to do business

At the age of 16 Henry started his own business, advertising invisible ink in his local paper, the Garden City Herald, which was simply lemon juice.  Not long after Henry moved to Chicago, and then to Philadelphia to further his training in pharmacy, graduating in 1874.

He started work as a salesman, but was soon travelling to the forests of Ecuador and Peru for new sources of Cinchona bark and writing about his expedition in the American Journal of Pharmacy.

In 1880 Henry moved to London and founded Burroughs Wellcome & Co with another salesman, and they established themselves as a highly reputable and reliable business.

Henry dressing up for a bit of fun

During his time in London Henry enjoyed socializing and loved to meet with explorers and travellers, including Dr Livingstone (I presume he was his favourite), and the stories he heard from these friends inspired him to set up a tropical research laboratory, as well as funding several hospital dispensaries abroad.

Syrie Wellcome at her best

One of his friends, Dr Bernardo, had a daughter called Syrie, who Henry met while visiting Sudan, and they soon married and had a boy.  However, the marriage did not last, and they suffered a very public divorce in which William Somerset Maugham was named as co-respondent.  Syrie later married and divorced Maugham as well and is reputed to have also had an affair with Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Burroughs Wellcome was one of the first companies in Europe to introduce a new way of selling medicine, which was in tablet form, and they trademarked the name “Tabloid” which they thought captured perfectly the concept of medicine in a compact form.

A Burroughs Wellcome "Tabloid" First Aid kit

Henry was quick to exploit the expeditions of the day which became big news and would provide medicinal kits to the likes of Scott of the Antarctic and other famous explorers.

This new form of medicine became very popular, quickly replacing the bulky powder that had been used up to now, and like all popular trademark names, the word “Tabloid” had become popular and was used to mean anything that was compact, including the Sopwith Tabloid biplane, which saw active service in the early stages of WWI.

“Tabloid Journalism” was already coined as early as 1901, to describe the condensed simple stories that appeared in newspapers, but it was not until the end of WWI that the smaller sheet newspapers were introduced, which were soon nicknamed “Tabloids”.

Henry died on 25th July 1936, leaving his entire estate to individual Trustees, who were charged with spending the income to further human and animal health.  Out of his estate (which included the company that would later merge with SmithKline), the Wellcome Trust was born.  The endowment of the trust is calculated as nearly £14bn, and it spends about £600m per year supporting biomedical research, which makes it the largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research in the UK.

Thanks Henry.

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Posted by on Monday 25th July 2011 in People


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