I began writing about my science travel adventures “Seeking Science” when I visited London in 2013. Since then, my purpose has been to tell you about some of the lesser-known places that may not be in guidebooks or top ten lists. On my most recent trip to London, I visited the Wellcome Collection. It self-describes as ‘a free visitor destination for the incurably curious exploring the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future’.
I was thrilled when I stepped into the main foyer: the first big sign said “Genomes”, and indeed there were displays celebrating the Human Genome Project and subsequent research. I lost track of time as I examined the various displays highlighting such diverse topics as SNP’s, Dolly the (cloned) Sheep, DNA sampling of the extinct passenger pigeon, and a variety of genetic diseases. Artwork inspired by the science allows for an examination of the social and cultural significance. This is all part of their ‘Medicine Now’ permanent collection.
By lunchtime, I stepped into the museum’s own restaurant appropriately named the Wellcome Kitchen for the opportunity to power-up with a coffee and a sandwich for more museuming in the afternoon.
When I peeked into the Reading Room I was invited to join in on the performance art going on. Apparently there are many activities in the Reading Room that patrons can get involved in. If I had followed up on their invitation to curl up on a comfy sofa with one of their collection of over a thousand books, I might still be there. But, I still had the main permanent display ‘Medicine Man’ to see.
In a previous blog, I wrote about Cabinets of Curiosities. I had surmised that the permanent collection of Henry Wellcome began as curiosities, but I soon realized that he built this collection to allow medical professionals a way to see and learn the history and development of medicine and medical science.
Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) was an amazing individual. Before his time, medicines were taken in powder form. In 1884 he developed a way of delivering medicine in tablet (pill) form. To give that some perspective, Robert Koch’s methodology for determining the causative disease agent was also introduced in 1884. The final establishment of germ theory by Louis Pasteur was not until 1870, and this justified the sanitary surgical techniques advocated by Joseph Lister in 1865. Wellcome used his vast fortune to set up a trust to support human and animal health. It was probably the world’s largest non-governmental funder of medical research until the establishment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Museums like the Natural History Museum in London can be very busy and it may feel crowded when trying to concentrate on the displays. I felt at times to be the only person in the Wellcome Collection. Perhaps there is a level of specialty that does not appeal to everyone, or perhaps it has not yet been discovered for the gem that it is. If you are going to London in the near future, set aside the time to take in the Wellcome Collection. It will satisfy your incurable curiosity.
Links of Interest:
Cabinets of Curiosities
You can also find me on