An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World

Christopher Turner writes:

In his 1994 biography, Robert Rhodes James dismissed Wellcome as a ‘magpie collector’ who tried to rationalise the contents of his hoard after the fact, and concentrated instead on his subject’s social and business interests and his patronage of scientific research. Frances Larson, in contrast, makes the case for the importance of Wellcome’s collection, and she convincingly explains the logic behind his apparent indiscriminateness. Wellcome wanted to create a museum of man rather than a cabinet of curiosities, a version of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum (the subject of Larson’s previous book) that would not only show how material culture had evolved over time, but would also trace man’s perennial battle with disease, from the shaman’s rattle to aspirin. An Infinity of Things, as the title suggests, is more a biography of the collection than of the man; Larson is interested in the relationships between the people who helped form it. The buyers and agents who did Wellcome’s bidding were colourful adventurers who bring life to the random and endless shopping lists catalogued in his numerous logbooks: ‘a blue and white china pap-cup; a poisoned dart in red bag; a pilgrim bottle; a pair of spectacles in a brass case; another pair of large round spectacles; some wooden scales; a skeleton warrior; a broken, painted thermometer’.

(LRB 7 January 2010)

Henry Wellcome was born in a Wisconsin log cabin on the American frontier. By the end of his life he had acquired a knighthood, an immense fortune, and a collection of objects connected to the history of medicine whose size and scope defied categorisation. ‘Accurately billed not as a biography but as “the biography of a collection”, the book is penetratingly honest’, wrote Andrew Robinson in New Scientist. ‘In places it reads as a gripping story of a bit of a monster, but Larson is too much the fastidious scholar … to sensationalise the material. So the story is muted, along with the iniquity. She notes Wellcome’s “boundless curiosity”, which is evident in his collection, but what she documents is his boundless and ruthless acquisitiveness … By the end, one feels rather sickened at the futility of his avarice.’

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