Wellcome Curiosity

Sheila Corr reveals some of the unexpected treasures held in the collections of Wellcome Images.

Wellcome Images was recently interviewing for a researcher to join their small team and asked the shortlisted candidates to select from the picture library a range of pictures which History Today might choose to illustrate an article on vaccination. I was both flattered and amused to hear this, delighted that the range of specific historical subjects we use each month is recognisable and distinctive. It would have been much easier to source a stock image of currants (the main commodity traded) for James Mather’s article 'The Levant Company' on Turkey merchants (May 2011), rather than delving deep into the history of the Levant Company to identify more interesting illustration ideas. But what would the reader learn from a picture of dried fruit? 18th-century paintings of merchants at Constantinople and photographs of their surviving houses in Aleppo tell us so much more.

Wellcome Images boasts a huge variety of objects and books from the collection of Henry Wellcome. He was a man of broad interests, an eclectic collector of medicine, art, science and more, who made his money as co-founder of a multinational pharmaceutical company. You would expect the collection to include early examples of dentures and toothbrushes such as those photographed to illustrate Lucy Worsley's article 'Oral History' (May 2011), but it is more surprising to find John Thomson’s original glass negatives of China and Siam from 1866, including one of the first king, Mongkut (played memorably by Yul Brynner in The King and I).

John Thompson's original glass negative of Mongkut

I discovered this back in July 2000 whilst researching pictures for Tony Stockwell's article 'Thailand’s Modernising Monarchs'. At the time, we also used a Thomson photograph of crown prince Chulalongkorn’s coming-of-age tonsure. To illustrate Anita Guerrini’s article 'Roast Beef and Salad' (February 2011), Wellcome located several obscure 17th-century cookery books in their library and scanned the title pages for me – all within a week. Unexpected bonuses to a medical picture library employing well-qualified and experienced researchers.

Find out more about the history of the smallpox vaccination, how it was opposed by many, and how the disease was eventually eradicated, in this article by Derrick Baxby published in our March 1999 issue.