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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June, 2003, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Glimpse of forgotten treasures
He was perhaps the most prolific collector of all time - with a passion bordering on obsession.

Henry Wellcome
Henry Wellcome: Prolific collector
On Thursday, many of his most fascinating finds go on display for the first time to the public.

Henry Wellcome, a Victorian entrepreneur and philanthropist, amassed more than a million objects from around the world, creating a collection which, at its height, was five times the size of the Louvre's.

Although the broad theme was health and medicine, the variety of items which fell within that definition was vast.

Wellcome bought a little of everything - from a lock of King George III's hair and Florence Nightingale's shoes to shrunken Peruvian heads and amputation saws.

However, many of the things he bought were never unpacked, and his dream of creating a "museum of mankind" was never fully realised.

A mummified corpse from Peru - just one exhibit from the vast Wellcome collection.

The collection was dispersed to more than a hundred organisations around the world.

Now, the British Museum, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, has brought together a fascinating exhibition of 700 of Wellcome's objects.

Danielle Olsen, one of the curators of the exhibition - The Medicine Man - described to BBC News Online the scale of the task of tracking down and choosing a small number of objects to sum up the breadth of the collection.

Vast archive

She said: "I had no idea about the scale of the collection. We had to write to all these organisations and ask them exactly what they had.

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"It was extremely difficult then to choose what to include - but what interested me were objects which had a story to them.

"There are some known treasures here, but many wonderful items which have never been shown before, but have been kept in basements and storage rooms."

In the early part of the 20th Century, Wellcome's expenditure on his collection exceeded that of the British Museum itself, as he and his team visited not only auction houses, but also rag and bone dealers and pawn shops to track down everyday items which people used in their healthcare.


In this way, as well as Lord Nelson's razor, he found gems such as the "Claxton earcap", a cloth harness designed to be worn by children at night to correct their protruding ears.

The quest for interesting artefacts took Wellcome around the globe.

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Danielle Olsen said: "He saw medicine as part of anthropology.

"Many people complained that he was a wealthy man who simply vacuumed everything he came across, but he was actually an extremely articulate and knowledgeable man."

However, she added: "He would probably be classed as having an obsessive-compulsive disorder if he were alive today."

Code crackers

Wellcome made a fortune selling pharmaceuticals and after his death, aged 83 in 1936, a trust was founded in his name which still funds scientific research today.

Indeed, it was 150m from the Wellcome Trust which allowed British researchers to decode a third of the human genome. People today, and future generations, will owe a huge debt to Wellcome's legacy.

And his vast collection is still assisting scientists and historians today.

Even a lock of hair from a former monarch can have its uses - experts have taken a strand for analysis to see if a cause for "the madness of King George" can be identified.

The exhibition, Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum Of Henry Wellcome, is open to the public at the British Museum between 26 June and 16 November .

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