Physic and Philanthropy: A History of the Weilcome Trust 1936-1986. A. Rupert Hall and B.A. Bembridge. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986. 479 pp. $39.50.
The Wellcome Trust has evolved into one of the great foundations of the world. Founded 50 years ago by Sir Henry Wellcome, the American-born sole owner of the Burroughs-Wellcome drug empire, the Trust has had a strong impact on medical research throughout the years. Its "prime object" is "the endowment of medical science," with special emphasis on tropical medicine, veterinary medicine and medical history.
Physic and Philanthropy examines the origins and evolution of the Wellcome Trust, and its impact on medical science. Although the book contains a good deal of factual information, it may not stir much interest outside the foundation community.
Sir Henry himself, a truly great man, is given short shrift. As described in The Times he was noted for "coining" the term "tabloid," and for "his upbringing among the Dakota Indians, and his great versatility and wide outlook." Beyond that, as described in the book, there was a series of complaints about the difficulties entailed by his enormous collection of archaeological and medical objects and books, and the problems occasioned by his complex will.
The chapter describing the first 20 years of the Trust is aptly entitled "Out of the Darkness." It chronicles the problems with tax claims, the poor quality of management of the company, and the hard work of the trustees who functioned essentially without a staff.
By 1964 "the total sum available to the Trustees for the support of medical research was about equal to that expended by the Medical Research Council," and that continues to be true. The Trust has undergone an enormous expansion with the growth of Burroughs Wellcome.
In recent years as government expenditures have tended to decline and Trust resources to increase markedly, the latter has taken on a greater and greater role in maintaining the remarkably high quality of the British medical research enterprise. The total expenditure of the Trust over its first 50 years has been "some £150 million [about $240 million] on thousands of separate grants."
The philosophy of grant-making is well-described in the book. In discussing "normal science" as compared to "revolutionary advances," it is stated that "most analysts of scientific progress agree that it is impossible to enjoy the pate de foie gras without plenty of bread and butter." Switching metaphors to a horse race it is noted that the development of molecular biology by physical scientists was not predictable by biologists.
In recent years the Trust has formed advisory panels that are "reflections in miniature of sections of the scientific-community as a whole." It was noted that "the quality of the panels is the quality of that section of the scientific community, and their decisions those that are likely to be approved by the community." While such an approach should lead to superb results in fields that are running with the winds of modern science, how will such a strategy affect fields that are in the doldrums?
I do not feel Physic and Philanthropy serves a great man and a great foundation as well as it should. The book is prolix, concerned with minutiae, negative in tone and will be waded through only by those with a profound interest in foundations and their unique and fascinating philosophies. The Wellcome Trust is a far better organization and has achieved far more than escapes the pages of this tome.