The Wellcome Collection: A Pharmaceutical Archive That Takes Us Far From Modern Medicine

To put it bluntly, the Wellcome Collection is the archive you never knew you needed. Advertised as, “The destination for the incurably curious,” the Wellcome Collection is an archive located in London, but also completely digitally accessible. The Wellcome Collection is vast, but generally they claim to focus on connections between “medicine, life, and art, in the past, present, and future.” Some, like myself, might say that’s hardly a focus, but in this case, the wide range of material archived here is what really makes it a stunning collection.

A mesmerist using animal magnetism on a woman who responds with convulsions. Wood engraving, 1845.

A mesmerist using animal magnetism on a woman who responds with convulsions. Wood engraving, 1845.


The Wellcome Collection is the personal collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, a gentleman with an interest in both marketing and medicine. In 1880, he and his friend Silas Burroughs set up a pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Co. Collecting over a million objects, Wellcome’s goal was to open a space to both house his collections for professionals to learn about the development of medicine and medicinal science.

The online collection features several archives including, Archives and Manuscripts, the History of Medicine Collection, and a Medical Collection. These larger groupings are organized by guides such as Alcohol and Drugs, Anatomy and physiology, and Animals, to name a few. There are also collections on development of birth control, eugenics, heredity and genetics, and treatment and therapy. While it appears that all of the information is meticulously sorted with excellent metadata, be aware that not all the content is yet digitized. To get straight to the digitized content, click here.

The website also features two curated ‘digital stories‘ that function as online exhibitions. The first one, “Mindcraft, a century of madness, murder, and mental healing,” takes you through a darkly fascinating history of alternative healing. The second, “The Collectors,” looks at the history of collecting the names of those who died in the 17th century. They’re visually engaging, darkly fascinating, and provide excellent history lessons to undergraduate students.

This is truly an interdisciplinary archive, perfect for anyone studying the history of medicine, pseudosciences, gender and women studies, art history, or, if you have a genuine penchant for the weird, the Wellcome Collection will be your new favorite archive for primary sources (and mine too!).


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