Wellcome Library

Sources for Business Historians in the Archives and Manuscripts Collections at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine

Annie Lindsay, Assistant Archivist

A library containing material relating to the history of medicine may not seem like the logical place to look for the records of any type of business. The term 'the history of medicine' conjures up an image of records relating to doctors, nurses and hospitals or perhaps medical research. A browse through the catalogues of the Archives and Manuscripts Section reveals that in fact the term encompasses a much broader area, and there are records that relate very much to business history. This short article aims to give a brief introduction to collections of relevance and the types of records that can typically be found.

The collections of main interest to the business historian are the archives of pharmacies and chemists. Some collections contain records spanning the company's entire trading history, offering a rich resource for the historian. Dating from the eighteenth century, these originate from all over the country, but especially London. The records that can typically be found include cashbooks, sales ledgers, correspondence, recipe books and advertising and promotional material. In most cases there are gaps within the archives, which occur for a number of reasons.

Other smaller collections held include names such as Savory and Moore and Harrods Pharmacy Department. These comprise of mainly prescription registers, financial records and a few poisons registers. Whilst useful for some historical purposes, for example analysing the sale of certain types of drugs in certain areas, these records are more limited for the purpose of studying a business's history.

On the opposite side from more conventional pharmaceutical preparations is 'quakery'. In 1887 the Sequah Medicine Co Ltd began selling patent medicines such as prairie flower and Indian oil using travelling salesman, known as Sequahs. One such Sequah was Peter Alexander Gordon (alias James Kasper). His papers contain an interesting selection of material from his brief time as a salesman in Great Britain, Ireland, the West Indies and America, including packaging, accounts, correspondence, advertising and propaganda.

It is worth noting at this point that archives of organisations rather than businesses also contain a certain amount of relevant material. The Lister Institute produced sera commercially as one way of funding itself, and one section of the archive deals with this venture. The records comprise mainly reports, accounts and correspondence. The FPA (Family Planning Association) archive contains a vast amount of material, dating from the 1930s-1960s, relating to contraceptive manufacturers, including Johnson and Johnson, the London Rubber Company and A G Schering.

For the purposes of this article the archive collections chosen for more detailed discussion are Corbyn, Stacey & Co Ltd, Thomas Morson & Son, Ltd, Fennings Pharmaceuticals, and the Wellcome Archives. This differs from the first three as it is not a business collection.

Corbyn, Stacey & Co Ltd

Thomas Corbyn (1711-1791), a Quaker, traded widely on the other side of the Atlantic, as his foreign letterbooks illustrate. Corbyn's letter books in particular offer the business historian an interesting insight into English trade with America prior to the Revolution. Corbyn made good use of his Quaker connections to build up his business, as is clear from these books: many of the letters begin Loving Friend....' and 'I am for Self & Partner Thy Obliged Friend'. This relationship has been discussed in detail in an article on Thomas Corbyn by Richard Palmer.

Corbyn manufactured and sold drugs (wholesale and retail, but mostly the former) and was not interested in the sale of proprietary drugs. Recipe books illustrate the range and quantity of drugs and preparations made by a pharmacist, and Corbyn produced his to a very high standard. As a Quaker and a businessman obviously Corbyn's reputation would be important to him. When it was called into question he would ask for the assistance of another Quaker, making use once again of his Quaker relationships

"The whole I submit as above mentioned & shall be willing to acknowledge if I have done wrong & hope to meet with the like candid treatment from thee."

Corbyn's recipe book is arranged alphabetically, and includes details of how to make each preparation, the quantities involved and the cost at the time of the initial entry. For example, in 1761 the total cost of producing Magnesia alba included the cost of a man's labour for 30 days, as well as the 'Powdering thro' fine hair sieve, 50lb...' Later additions have been made, noting modifications to recipes, or the success or failure of a recipe.

Other records in the collection include Clutton family papers, including those relating to the business when Corbyn initially entered into partnership with Mary Clutton and Morris Clutton, wages books, partnership agreements, accounts of George Stacey I, George Stacey II and Josiah Messer, Corbyn's partners (the first joining him in 1772), deeds relating to the firm's premises and copies of research notes made by Dr T D Whittet.

Thomas Morson & Son, Ltd

Thomas Newborn Robert Morson (1799-1874) was apprenticed to Charles Dunn, an apothecary, Fleet Market, London at the age of 14. The business was bought by Henry Morley in 1815 after the death of Dunn. At the age of 18 Morson went to Paris and worked for the chemist Louis Antoine Planche. On his return to London he took over the business, bringing with him all the scientific knowledge he had gained in France. Morson was very interested in learning, realising that chemistry was the future of his profession. He was a close friend of a number of leading scientists, including Faraday, and was a leading figure in the establishment of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, becoming its President in 1848.

As the firm remained family run until becoming a subsidiary of Merck & Co Inc, in 1957 the collection contains both personal and business papers. It also contains the research papers of Mr Anthony Morson, Thomas Morson's great great grandson, who wrote a biography of Morson, Operative Chymist (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997).

Morson specialised in particular in the manufacture and sale of vegetable alkaloids, and from 1821 was the first British producer of quinine sulphate and morphine. Records show that Morsons were swift to become involved in the manufacture and supply of Chloroform after it was first used as an anaesthetic in 1847. Business correspondence shows two invoices for Chloroform being sold in 1848. Like Corbyn, Thomas Morson built up a very good export business, with export agents in a variety of countries including Egypt, Iraq, New Zealand and Sweden. The letter book in the Morson papers is unfortunately not as easy to read as Corbyn's. This is due to the fact that the letters were written on very flimsy paper, so the ink has spread quite badly. Some of the letters are fading, indeed some have become illegible. However, there are files of business correspondence, particularly relating the products manufactured by Morsons.

Other records in the archive include Morson's Paris journal, family papers, legal papers, a very large collection of photographs, advertising records, sales records and scrapbooks.

Fennings Pharmaceuticals

The records relating to Fennings Pharmaceuticals also offer a wide range of records for the Business Historian. Alfred Fennings (d. 1900) opened the Golden Key Pharmacy in 1840 selling medicines for serious ailments such as typhoid and cholera as well as for more minor complaints such as colds. In 1850 he moved his business to the Isle of Wight. After his death in 1900, the business was administered by Trustees, with all the profits going to a children's charity. By 1984, the business was operating from Horsham, with a distribution depot at Ashton-under-Lyne.

A great number of the records in the collection are financial. Unfortunately, there are no letterbooks like those with either the Corbyn or Morson collections. The collection does include subject files, which do contain correspondence. The subject matter in these files includes export licences and product licences. Financial records in this archive include sales statistics and sales returns, which can be useful in plotting the success or otherwise of a firm at various points in its history. Although these are not continuous by any means, there are sufficient to get a picture of the fortunes of the company at different periods, including both world wars.

The Fennings archive, like the Morson archive contains a selection of advertising material. This includes publications by Fennings, for example Every Mother's Book, which ran to several editions. This offers practical help for new mothers such as

"Dirt is the friend of disease germs and baby must be kept sweet and wholesome by bathing him daily if possible or washing him all over...."

On the whole the booklet contained the same text through its various editions. However, if you look at the 1936 edition, there are annotations and marks where the text is to be altered, perhaps in line with the current trends in child rearing! Whilst the booklet is a promotional publication, the actual advice offered rarely recommends the use of Fennings products, although there are of course adverts at the end. Other Fennings' publications include Fennings Family Doctor; or, when ill, How to get Well' (1864); The Family Physicians (1852) and Fennings' Playtime Picture Story Book for all Good Girls and Boys' (1939). As well as publications, the archive contains packaging for Fennings' products, advertising leaflets both for the firm in general and for individual products and adverts to be displayed in shops.

Other records in the archive include Trustees' minutes (after the death of Alfred Fennings in 1900), stock books, wages books and legal agreements.

The Wellcome Archives

The Wellcome Archives, one of the largest collections held in the Archives and Manuscripts section, contain some material relating to the drugs company that became GlaxoWellcome. These are not the archives of the drugs company founded by Sir Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs. They are, however, the personal papers of Sir Henry Wellcome, the records of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, the Wellcome Bureau of Scientific Research, the Wellcome Chemical Research Laboratories, The Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, the Wellcome Physiological research laboratories and the Wellcome Museum of Medical Science. As a result of the way in which Henry Wellcome operated his business and his personal life, a great deal of his business correspondence can be found amongst his personal papers. Indeed, an entire series is dedicated to his business affairs. Papers relating to Wellcome business can be found in the correspondence sections throughout the archive. As mentioned above, the bulk of the business records are held by GlaxoWellcome, and although negotiations are in progress for the transfer of the records to the Wellcome Trust, anyone interested in consulting the archive should contact GlaxoWellcome.

The BAC Pharmaceutical Survey

As well as holding records of pharmaceutical companies ourselves, we hold a database of the Business Archives Council's survey of historical records of the pharmaceutical industry. Containing over 560 entries, the database includes information on: the company name; what it traded in; where it was based; a history of the company; the types of records that can be found; the location/s of the records and bibliographical information. The database is also available at the Wellcome Unit at the University of East Anglia and the Business Archives Council. It is an invaluable tool for historians, particularly those interested in the history of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, in an individual company or companies in one particular geographical area. We look forward to receiving a copy of the BAC's recently completed database of historical records relating to veterinary medicine.


Indeed, though it may not seem like the most obvious place to look, it goes to show that historians should not be put off by names. The history and understanding of medicine is a very broad term: the Wellcome Library can provide the means for research into business. As illustrated, the contents of the archives vary from collection to collection: some have limited use; some cover a substantial date range. Records relating to business and the history of medicine are not, in fact, mutually exclusive!

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