Wellcome home

Silas Burroughs, business partner of Henry Wellcome, is lifted from obscurity thanks to a fascinating new biography, writes Dan Carrier

Thursday, 16th June — By Dan Carrier

Silas Burroughs_Portrait of S.M. Burroughs. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Silas Burroughs. Photo: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

A POLITICAL radical who helped revolutionise medicine, Silas Burroughs made a lasting impact on Anglo-American Victorian society.

He was the business partner of Henry Wellcome, and it was his energy and expertise that was key to the company’s success in the mass production of pharmaceuticals – improving their quality, effectiveness and regulating ingredients.

But his name has fallen into obscurity while Wellcome and the Trust that bears his name is known around the world.

Now a biography of sets the record straight. Author Julia Sheppard charts Burroughs’ early life in America, his brilliance as a scientist and his extraordinary work ethic. She also discusses how his experiences shaped his deep-rooted belief in social justice, and the relationship between Burroughs and Wellcome.

Historian Ms Sheppard brought the Burroughs papers to the Wellcome Institute in her role as head of research and special collections at their Euston Road headquarters.

The book lays bare the extraordinary times Burroughs and Wellcome lived through, a period when medical research and public health made huge advances. It also charts a relationship that turned from mutual respect to deep acrimony between the pair, a battle that continued after Burroughs’ death as Wellcome fought his widow, Olive.

Burroughs’ descent into obscurity is tied into his sudden death from pneumonia aged 49.

At the time, he and Wellcome were locked in an ever-spiralling legal fisticuffs over how their company was managed. His death freed Wellcome to take on his partner’s work as his own and he was not unduly concerned about his former friend’s posthumous reputation. Burroughs became a footnote to the pharmaceutical industry’s early years.

But what a life Burroughs led. He was armed with energy, foresight and education.

Born in 1846 in upstate New York, his father was a self-made businessman and politician – a path Burroughs would follow.

Henry Wellcome

Burroughs started at the bottom, giving him an overarching view of an industry he would revolutionise. He worked the counter of a chemist, and then as a travelling salesman. He trained in Philadelphia when the science of pharmacy was emerging as a dynamic profession, notes the author, with the discipline taught at university level and becoming regulated.

Travelling across the country selling products was a job in which “personality was capital,” and Burroughs excelled.

“He had a keen and attentive eye…piercing in its glance…and when in reverie, with a particularly dreamy introspection,” writes Ms Sheppard.

His early career coincided with an expansion of the railways, giving him the means to reach new markets. Later, he would traverse the world to find new customers for his wares.

There is no definite record of when Burroughs and Wellcome first met, but Ms Sheppard believes “… it is likely their paths crossed in Philadelphia during a pharmaceutical meeting or through college. What is certain is that the two men formed a strong friendship.”

After a successful stint as a salesman for the Wyeth company, Burroughs came to London in 1878 aged 31. The hub of the Empire, the centre of global finance, it provided every chance to seek a fortune.

At first, American firms were not trusted. “American pharmacy was perceived as dealing in patent and quack medicine, and there was prejudice against Americans and their ‘boosterism’,” Ms Sheppard writes.
Burroughs stepped up to the challenge.

An advert for the ‘Burroughs’ ammonia inhaler: ‘… not only does it remove Catarrh, but after its use the patient is less susceptible to the effects of the weather than before, the contrary being the case with all steam inhalers’

On his arrival in London he lived in Torrington Square, Bloomsbury, and set up office in Great Russell Street.

“His approach to selling in Britain was as novel as it was effective,” adds Ms Sheppard. “To build up interest and confidence, he had to overcome resistance to American pharmaceuticals and convince the market that his products were superior to his rivals.”

His list of products touted to London doctors included preparations of beef, iron and wine, Parkers Paper Fibre Lint, compressed powders for the relief of dyspepsia or indigestion, tablets of chlorate and potash for hoarseness, sore throats and croup. There were cod liver oils and malt extracts – and a cigarette to treat asthma, a sign of how far the profession had to go in terms of research.

Burroughs saw the importance of branding, and marketed Burroughs Beef and Iron Wine. He trademarked names, noting how the British public did not like the word “pill”, so instead registered the word “tablet”.

Then, in 1883, he was looking for a brand name for a new tablet. He kicked around ideas – Pil-Ovoid, Equaloid, and Elixoid. None stuck. He settled on Tabloid, trademarked in 1884.

The name’s effective­ness saw it hijacked by others and has now become shorthand for a newspaper.

The demise of Burroughs and Wellcome’s partnership was based on disagree­ments over investment – Burroughs was better off than Wellcome – management issues and sales techniques. Burroughs wanted to increase the employees’ profit share, while Wellcome believed staff should be given pay rises on merit and at fixed times.

Bottles of early Burroughs, Wellcome & Co products

The relationship got to the point where writs flew back and forth, and both parties sought to dissolve the firm.

Amazingly, despite this fractious relationship, the business flourished. They won a race to develop an anti-diptheria serum, a huge coup. But success only bred further anger.

“Unable now to discuss matters face to face, their correspon­dence seethes with anger and resent­ment,” writes Ms Sheppard. “Working together had become an unbearable nightmare.”

Burroughs accused Wellcome of not doing his share of the work, while Wellcome hit back, complaining of Burroughs’ increased political activism. His incendiary speeches at rallies were harming their reputation, argued Wellcome. But Burroughs recognised injustice and acted on his conscience.

In the 1880s, he visited Ireland and was deeply upset by the poverty he encountered.

“The villages are but huddles of miserable houses, and the homes not fit for pigsties,” he wrote. “The landlords’ houses are palaces.”

He joined demonstrations over land reform and the Anglo-Irish relationship. Other causes included the eight-hour day, licensing laws, tax reforms and the right to protest.

He was a member of the Anti-Poverty Society and the Anti-Slavery Society, and brought his children up to always abide by his personal motto: “Do unto others as you would have do unto you.”

Ms Sheppard’s richly detailed biography brings alive a period of massive technological and social change, and charts the career of a key figure in an industry that changed the world.

It’s a fitting tribute to a person who deserves to be recognised.

Silas Burroughs, the Man who Made Wellcome: American Ambition and Global Enterprise. By Julia Sheppard. Lutterworth Press, £60. A paperback edition is due to be published in August, £20

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