Picture credit: Wellcome Trust
Artillery Row

Bad medicine

Has America’s “racial reckoning” come for the Wellcome Collection?

Over the weekend, visitors to the Wellcome Collection, a famous medical museum, were shocked to discover that with only two days’ notice the long running “Medicine Man” exhibition was being withdrawn. Why? Well according to a statement on Twitter the exhibition “was a collection that told a global story of health and medicine in which disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised and exploited – or even missed out altogether.”

There was shock and outrage, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Britain, as a satellite of the Great American Empire, is now being swamped by America’s so-called “racial reckoning” in which elite cultural spaces like museums, art galleries and universities have been a prime focus for a new, shrill and nihilistically self-serving ideology of racial resentment. In Britain which has no history of Jim Crow style racial laws and segregation, this has instead tended to focus on trying to link ideas, institutions and inherited wealth to the alleged sins of British colonialism. 

But why is this narrative so compelling so long after the end of the British Empire? And why should a popular and successful museum dedicated to science and medicine be so gripped by it? 

The answer begins with a very Western medicine man — Henry Solomon Wellcome. Born in a log cabin in Wisconsin to an itinerant missionary, his first “medicine” was invisible ink — in fact simply lemon juice — which he advertised in the local newspaper. He later trained as a pharmacist, and proved extremely successful thanks to his gifts as a salesman, before moving to London and setting up a pharmaceutical company with an ambitious associate. 

Wellcome’s role in the pharmaceutical industry was massive — many credit him with being at the forefront of the most crucial developments in the modern medical industry: 

These included the formulation and mass production of pills and capsules, scientific treatments and vaccines, the standardisation of dosages, the establishment of laboratories for drug research, worldwide systems of manufacture and distribution, direct marketing to doctors, and the dominance of a small number of massively profitable companies to coordinate all this activity. One man was involved in all of these advances and was the prime mover of many of them.

His original company after a series of mergers went on to become GlaxoSmithKline, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and the inventor of the malaria vaccine. His own vast wealth was invested in the Wellcome trust, its resources dedicated at his behest to biomedical research, and it remains the largest charity in Britain and is presently the second largest foundation in the world. It would be impossible to quantify the number of life saving and enhancing drugs developed, manufactured and introduced to doctors by his company and its successors, or through the research funded by his trust — considered purely as a numbers game, Wellcome must be considered as ranking alongside Norman Borlaug as an ethical giant responsible for saving millions of lives.

He was clearly no saint in the traditional sense however — the implosion of his marriage was the “scandal of the age” — and he seems to have been a deeply unhappy and restless soul, his energies turned outwards to answer an inwards discontent. 

But what do those who now run his Trust, and look after his collection of medical objects — his two great gifts to posterity and the public, freely and generously given — have to say about their benefactor? 

Well one Subhadra Das, an historian and writer, was invited to write about the grand old man. She wrote, as part of the curatorial signs in the Wellcome Collection, a piece entitled “Dismantling Wellcome”. 

“What is it”, she asks “that makes him so different from everyone else?” The answer, we are told, is “power”. His advancements “fuelled the British Empire”. The “message of the gallery is clear, you would not be standing here, looking at all these wondrous things, were it not for Henry Wellcome, who bought them and paid for them to be here” (the author doesn’t seem to have paused to reflect that this message, whether or not it was the one intended, is clearly and unambiguously true). 

She goes on: “Wellcome died in 1936. He is survived by his money and his museum, both of which serve to extend his power beyond his life. The real thing that sets Henry Wellcome apart is how this museum chooses to treat and remember him. How different would this place look, if rather than building a shrine to one man, we shifted our focus to remember all the other people here?”

Subhadra Das, who has to my knowledge not saved a single life through any of her professional endeavours, has an agenda and a forthcoming book to flog. It’s cleverly entitled (Un)Civilised: 10 Lies That Made the West. According to her website:

It’s about the idea of ‘western civilisation’ — 10 ideas, in fact — and how they shape our view of the world and each other in extremely unhelpful ways. I’ll be uncovering the racist thinking behind our notions of’ science’, ‘education’, and ‘nation’, the biases behind ‘justice’ and ‘individuality’, questioning the reality of ‘democracy’, along critiquing the capitalism that shapes our ideas about ‘time’, ‘death’, and ‘art’. I’ll also be looking to non-western worldviews and philosophies that, I think, do the job much better.

The idea that millions of people are alive and healthy today, including non-western people, because of Western science and medicine, is a fact that seems to really bother some clearly racist people, who dislike the idea of ascribing anything good to the West, whose history and values exist only to be relentlessly insulted and challenged without qualification. 

There’s no winning in this game, no matter how many billions you leave to charity, no matter how many advances in knowledge and technology you assist, you are only the more guilty for exerting your oppressive power. 

But it goes beyond one tiresome and xenophobic historian. The “Reckoning” is everywhere. In 2019 the website’s description of the Medicine Man exhibition gave honour to the old founder: “Henry Wellcome was a man of many parts: entrepreneur, philanthropist, patron of science and pioneer of aerial photography. He also created one of the world’s great museums: a vast stockpile of evidence about our universal interest in health and the body.”

But by 2021 he’d been downgraded to “a collector who, through his agents, amassed well over a million books, paintings and objects from around the world”. We were also informed in solemn tones that, “Colonial power shaped how the collection was put together and understood. In 2021 we installed a series of interventions in the exhibition in which artists and writers responded to an exhibit of their choice. Addressing the collection’s colonial legacies, their responses highlighted human stories that previous histories of health and medicine had hidden or ignored.” 

It would be easy to dismiss this as the work of one “woke” museum and curatorial team. But the collection’s embrace of the “Reckoning” is a reflection of the ideological take-over of Britain’s largest charity — the Wellcome Trust. What do they think of the man who posthumously employs them all? 

The Trust’s website informs us that:

Henry Wellcome’s collection was a vast personal project, the privilege of a wealthy white man in the Victorian era. 

This kind of collecting relied on and fuelled a market for such items that was driven by colonial activities and open to exploitative trading. Many objects were taken out of their social and cultural context and used to sustain a narrative that assumed European superiority.

Moreover they note that “research in tropical medicine had been an aspect of British colonialism.” 

They can’t quite deplore all of the saving lives in tropical countries bit (though it is, as the weasel word goes, problematic), but they can certainly invent a bit of guilt over the fact that he took the time to be curious about non-Western medical objects. What a bastard, he should have stuck with his own culture. And trading with the natives? Inherently exploitative since they have the minds of children. 

And where does all this bizarre, racist, poisonous language come from? Well we have only to glance at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion portion of the Trust’s website. Here we can glean some clues as to what might be going on behind the scenes.

Employees are subject to “unconscious bias training” — you’d think a medical research charity might have looked up the research on this nonsense pseudoscience, but then again, witch doctors are back in vogue. 

They’re signatories to the “Race at Work Charter”, which commits them to the following open-ended policies:

  • Appoint an Executive Sponsor for race.
  • Capture ethnicity data and publicise progress.
  • Commit at board level to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying.
  • Make clear that supporting equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all leaders and managers.
  • Take action that supports ethnic minority career progression.
  • Support race inclusion allies in the workplace.
  • Include Black, Asian, Mixed Race and other ethnically diverse-led enterprise owners in supply chains.

But most disturbingly they have embraced something called “reverse mentorship programs”  which are described as “senior leaders being mentored by a more junior colleague who, from a diversity and inclusion perspective, is different from them in some way, and therefore experiences their career differently”. In other words: young, often highly ideological minority colleagues with potentially shallow knowledge or investment in the organisation are given free rein to browbeat their employers.

They’ve also embraced identity-based staff networks, are “Stonewall diversity champions” and have an elaborate “trans inclusion policy”. 

Taken together these policies reflect the toxic patterns of America’s “Reckoning” — younger staff members encouraged to organise into identity-based groups, given a platform to browbeat senior staff, and an entire staff of new employees is hired to carry forward “progressive” ideology (which usually involves hiring yet more people to tell you how racist you’ve all been). 

The really aggravating thing about the situation is not only the obviously silly and self-serving quality of the rhetoric and the ideas on offer from the new liberal Left, it’s the way that after all the howling about Western colonialism they are repeating its oldest and worst errors.

Henry Solomon Wellcome is after all a great Western “medicine man”, and a revered ancestor. He rose from the most humble of beginnings, a restless and brilliant soul and he deserves to be remembered and honoured by those who carry on his name and works. 

An alien ideology, determined it knows best, contemptuous towards our past and traditions is determined to throw out our history, rewrite it and recast it in their image, and enrich themselves in the process. They’re not only trampling our culture and desecrating our sacred places, they’re taking our resources, the inheritance of our ancestors, and making it their own. So take up your metaphorical tomahawks, and let’s call the battle to defend the legacy of Henry Wellcome what it is: a liberation struggle against neocolonialists. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover