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Richard Aspin

The archives of UK biomedical science: the Wellcome Experience

A survey of the landscape of collecting, preserving and making available the archives of biomedical science in the Wellcome Library must begin with some historical context. I use the term biomedical science to encompass all those research activities that have their ultimate purpose in the improvement of human and animal health. Of course the term would not have been used during most the period of my institution’s history – nor would the term archives for that matter – but we can reasonably claim I think that the archives of UK biomedical science had their place in Wellcome story from the beginning.

The Wellcome Library owes its existence to the vision of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), American-born pharmaceutical entrepreneur and philanthropist. Towards the middle of his life, having made a great deal of money from his pharmaceutical business, Burroughs-Wellcome and Co (founded 1880), he increasingly turned his attention to the creation of a museum of mankind in London, focusing especially on the theme that Wellcome considered the fundamental leitmotif of human existence, the eternal struggle to maintain heath and wellbeing and to combat disease. Medicine then was only one, if perhaps the most important, subject for Wellcome’s collecting; he did envisage the museum being available primarily for the enlightenment of doctors and indeed it first opened its doors on the occasion of the International Medical Congress in London in 1913. I should add that the museum never opened regularly during Wellcome’s lifetime. But Wellcome recognised that in the long trajectory of human existence the contemporary definition and understanding of the phenomenon Medicine was highly relative. Indeed he had an evolutionary conception of anthropology, which was perhaps already becoming old-fashioned in his own lifetime, which supposed that societies and their arts and sciences evolved from primitive beginnings to higher states of knowledge and development  in a sort of natural and ineluctable progression.

His intention was to document and illuminate this progression by collecting and exhibiting the products of primitive man and earlier societies, in terms of both material culture and the transmission of ideas and knowledge about the body and its afflictions, and mankind’s ongoing search for health. Books, documents and pictures were acquired as well as three-dimensional objects. Wellcome’s was  a singular vision: he made no attempt to discover and had no interest in what the medical profession, let alone the general public, wanted to see displayed in his galleries, and never contemplated any sort of even limited public access to his library collections, which as far as one can tell were intended mainly for reference by his museum staff. By the early 1930s Wellcome’s collecting was on an industrial scale. Coverage was international: not only European sources were tapped but large consignments of Asian materials were shipped to London.His erstwhile partner SM Burroughs having had the good manners to die in 1895, Wellcome had assumed sole control of the business and its profits. During Henry Wellcome’s lifetime  it was quite commonly assumed that his museum and library were part of a sophisticated marketing strategy to promote the company’s products. Not only was this not true, but on the contrary so large a proportion of the profits  were leeched away for the museum and library that the company’s directors had serious concerns for its viability and after Wellcome’s death in 1936 the firm took a generation to recover.

The Wellcome Trust was established under the provisions of Henry Wellcome’s will to administer his bequest. This included supervision of Wellcome’s pharmaceutical business, the sole source of funds for his various projects and maintenance of his historical collections, which occupied part of the new Wellcome Building in central London and several warehouses in the suburbs. The entire subsequent history of the collections can be seen as an extended negotiation between the Trust and the founder’s legacy, with the former trying by turns to discipline, educate and gainfully employ its problem child. To these ends large quantities of superfluous or otherwise out-of-scope materials were sold or given away over the course of almost 40 years, and in the 1970s the rump medical collection of artefacts was presented on permanent loan to the national Science Museum and an academic institute established around the library to promote the study of medical history.

Medical historiography at the time in the UK was largely the preserve of retired doctors researching the history of their own professional antecedents. It had close parallels with scientific historiography though remained on a more amateurish footing. However, even after all the sales and other disposals of material from the museum its practitioners would have found the eclectic nature of the Wellcome library’s remaining holdings bizarre and bewildering. In amongst the intelligible and predictable medical textbooks and manuscripts of medical worthies there were myriad products of lay medical culture, such as housewives’ recipe collections and advertisements for quack cures, quite apart from reams of alchemical, astrological and magical works. The new generation of medical historians in Britain who emerged in the 1970s, who usually lacked a medical or scientific training, generally found even less of potential interest in the Wellcome Library’s archival collections than their predecessors. They and their students, rather than busying themselves in the Wellcome’s manuscript collections, tended to use the national or local authority archives or make contact with individuals or institutions holding their own papers  to solicit access.

It was partly for this reason that the Wellcome Trustees established within the Library the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre in 1979, to collate information about privately-held medical papers and encourage their donation and deposit for permanent preservation and research access. Many such collections were acquired by the CMAC itself, often via medical historians or their graduate students acting as intermediaries. These collections ranged from the records of Victorian private lunatic asylums, to correspondence of Marie Stopes, birth control pioneer, to the records of the Eugenics Society. The CMAC did not prioritise the archives of biomedicine, although records of scientific medicine had their place and indeed papers of non-medically trained researchers, such as Sir Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley, the biochemists who took part in the elaboration of penicillin at Oxford during the War, whose papers were acquired via the good offices of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, forerunner of NCUACS in 1983. However, there was just as much focus on for example the records of general practice in Britain, which were expected to be both voluminous and especially vulnerable to loss. In the event it transpired that the latter were excessively difficult to attract into the library for various reasons. Other important biomedical protagonists whose papers entered the Wellcome Library at this period included the immunologist Sir Peter Medawar (Nobel Prize 1960), among whose papers were a continuous series of lab notebooks dating from 1943-74, Dame Honor Fell, the zoologist and Director of the Strangeways Research Laboratory, and the nutritionists Harriette Chick and Robert McGance and Elsie Widdowson. At about the same time CMAC received the fragmentary surviving archives of the Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine, London, including its serum and vaccine testing records from the first half of the 20th century, and records of the Strangeways Research Laboratory, Cambridge.

The point to make I think is that the archival acquisition process in the period from the 1970s to date was largely driven by perceived user demand, however randomly and impressionistically this was gauged. And since the users and potential of users of the library were overwhelmingly conducting research in the humanities there was a bias towards collecting materials of interest and accessible to those without a scientific background – records of medical education and practice; records of medical policy and public health; papers of single-issue pressure groups; records of professional medical or nursing associations; and so forth.

Both approaches to collecting that I have identified – Henry Wellcome’s singular and all-encompassing vision on the other hand and the user-led approach of the recent past on the other – are thus problematic. The one is too broad and risks being merely shapeless and chaotic, the other arguably too narrow. I might digress here with  a telling illustration provided by a particular  genre of manuscript, the lay medical remedy book, a type that seems to have become fairly ubiquitous in England during the later 17th and 18th centuries. Henry Wellcome collected many of these, reckoning them presumably as manifestations of a primitive pre-scientific medical culture; his trustees kept them in the collection but there is no evidence that they were much used when the library became available to the public after the War and certainly no more were acquired for fifty years after Wellcome’s death. By the 1990s they had become the most regularly consulted genre of pre-20th century manuscript in our collection and we dutifully began buying them at auction at every opportunity. So we now possess some hundreds of these items acquired either before 1936 or since 1996. How many have escaped through our negligence in the intervening years?

This historical survey sets the collection development context for the position where the Wellcome Library’s archives department found itself at the turn of the Millennium. At the same time other developments outside the restricted confines of the library and its user constituency were shaping to have a major impact on our work. Firstly the British pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s entered a period of sustained growth, consolidation and ultimately globalisation that led among other consequences to the disappearance of the Wellcome Foundation Ltd (successor to Burroughs Wellcome) and the de-coupling of the Wellcome Trust from its single company dependency. The Wellcome drugs company was the source of a good deal of fiundamental biomedical research from quite early on in its history, and when it disappeared from the corporate map in the early 1990s  a process began that led ultimately to  the transfer of its records to the Wellcome Library. Not all its records mind you, as significant materials were withheld by the new corporate entity Glaxo –Wellcome, soon to become part of GlaxoSmithKline (gsk), including all the Wellcome Company laboratory books dating back to the late 19th century.

Secondly the business of biomedical research has expanded rapidly since the 1990s, partly as a consequence of the increase in funding and other stimulation provided by the Wellcome Trust, which is now the UK’s largest source of charitable funds. The public flotation by the Trustees of the Wellcome drugs company and the subsequent diversification of their investment portfolio increased income exponentially and also perhaps  encouraged a more ambitious cast of mind. The Wellcome Trust today identifies itself as a scientific institution run by scientists. This might sound like a statement of the obvious to those who now work for the organisation or who have only encountered it in its most recent guise, but it is not so long ago that it was dominated by former clinicians rather the laboratory scientists and there is a clear cultural difference between the two. It is broadly the case that the archival activities of the Wellcome Library up till the present have responded to and been congruent with the culture of the former rather than the latter:  to simplify very crudely we have been reactive rather than proactive in our acquisitions, flexible and empirical in our collection development policies (or lack of them!), tolerant of diversity in our acceptance of a multiplicity of varying terms of deposit.

This comfortable and dare I say humane world is now changing, for good or ill. The symbolic turning point in our Library occurred with the purchase of the papers of Francis Crick in 2001/2, though this event was more symptom than cause of change. Crick was not medical qualified, never worked in a clinical setting and demonstrated no particular interest in medicine. Although his personal papers would always have been of interest to the Wellcome Library at whatever stage they might have become available for acquisition, it is inconceivable that they would have demanded the level of attention (and financial investment) that they have received in the absence of the genetic research developments in recent years and the evolution of the Wellcome Trust that I have just outlined. The Crick acquisition was the first major archival accession that was initiated and directed from the top of the organisation, and was the shape of things to come. We were still then reacting rather than initiating but this time to the promptings of our internal hierarchy rather than external stimuli. More recently we have accepted the archives of the Biochemical Society, including papers of double Nobellist Fred Sanger, under somewhat similar circumstances, although by deposit on loan rather than purchase.

We are entering a new world in which the Wellcome’s archives team responds  to an agenda set by the parent body, conforms more closely to the biomedical orthodoxy validated by Wellcome Trust funding, perhaps takes responsibility for internally generated administrative records (something that we have not done up till now) and for engaging with external recipients of Wellcome Trust grants, such as the Sanger Institute for genomic research. We are not entirely reluctant participants in these changes of course, especially the last. After all, the closer the perceived connection between the results of genomic research and the delivery of clinical benefits the greater the motivation of libraries such as the Wellcome Library, whose core mission is to document the history of medicine, to collect the archives of fundamental biological investigation.  It now seems strange that there has been till now no systematic attempt by us to engage the interest of recipients of Wellcome Trust funding in the long-term preservation of records generated as a result of their research. Besides, early engagement with creators of archival material becomes critical when the bulk of the records they create are born-digital, as there are for instance at the Sanger Institute.  The conventional pattern of waiting for protagonists to retire or even die before trying to secure their papers is untenable if we are to preserve born-digital archives, from emails, to electronic lab notebooks to web pages and blogs.  We are still at an early stage in this process of constructive engagement with potential donors of born-digital material: our website has a digital curation section with FAQs and a digital curation toolbox and we are presently in process of sourcing a digital repository.

If engagement with what might be deemed to be our natural donor-/creator constituency seems overdue, there are nonetheless other potential consequences of the changes in our relations with our parent body that I have outlined that are perhaps more problematic. The biggest danger it seems to me is the risk of tying the development of our collections too closely to the priorities and prejudices of the moment. History is about the long view and although archivists have usually been called on to exercise discretion and judgement in what they collect and preserve they have been well-advised, where they have had the liberty to do so, not to try to anticipate the intellectual and political currents of the future. We have seen how in the case of my own institution the Post war tendency to tie the Wellcome Library’s collecting to the perceived user interest of the day led to distortion. And if early engagement with the creators of born-digital archives is de rigeur it nevertheless accentuates the dangers of early anticipation of what material will be deemed useful and important to future generations of researchers.

Another risk of closer association with our governing body is the danger of narrowness of vision. One of the great glories of the Wellcome Library’s holdings is the richness of documentation of the non-orthodox, everything from quack medicine, to alternative and complementary medicine, to anti-medicine. Henry Wellcome did not surely regard these things as of equal status and scientific validity as contemporary evidence-based medicine, but viewed them as appropriate themes to document as part of the necessary and inevitable progression of primitive forms. Anyone who has listened to the impassioned debates between proponents and opponents of such relatively innocuous therapies as homeopathy in the British media will not be surprised to learn that one treads in these areas at one’s peril. How do we respond for instance, as I was asked to do this year, to an approach from a documentary film producer who has built up a large collection of material on the alternative theories of the etiology of AIDS? Whatever one thinks of the project or the science behind it, it seems to me part of the Wellcome Library’s remit to document such causes, obsessions and alternative theories, but I would be very hesitant to make the case for acquisition in front of the Governors of the Wellcome Trust.

A third problematic consequence of closer association with the agenda of the parent body in our case is the issue of scientific education. Most archivists in the UK, indeed all in our institution, are humanities graduates who have received postgraduate training in archives administration. The administration of specialist archives, whether commercial, legal, scientific or medical has always involved the adoption of enough specialist knowledge to sort and catalogue the archives satisfactorily, but invariably within the familiar parameters of text and numerals. How does an archivist by contrast describe or even identify a document that may comprise a vast series of computer- generated notation that might be the product of genome sequencing? Of course early engagement with creators as envisaged earlier may well go a long way to helping with this challenge.

So to finish, what are the implications of the foregoing for archivists in the Wellcome Library in coming years, and by extension for users of the archives? Firstly it is clear that the recent closer connection between the Library and the parent body will be maintained, with all that this implies for concentration on acquiring, preserving and making available for research  the records of Wellcome-Trust funded biomedical science. We anticipate an ever closer union in particular with the Sanger Institute and its Library. This union will involve shared use of the proposed Wellcome Library digital object repository to ensure long-term preservation of vulnerable born-digital materials, such as personal papers, unpublished papers, significant personal email, datasets, Facebook/Myspace/flickr pages etc. The aim will be to capture particularly the softer side of the scientific enterprise, both because we envisage that this aspect will not otherwise survive and because we envisage that it will be of continuing interest to researchers of the future. As time passes it is not the results or methodology of scientific research that remain of primary concern to historians of medicine –after all much of this is explained at an early stage in the published literature – but the back story that lies embedded in the archives. To this end we also hope to target scientists working at Sanger, as well as other biomedical researchers, in an oral history programme in collaboration with the British Library.

Our archivists will in future be more proactive in targeting sources of archival acquisitions within the biomedical field, and especially that part of it funded by the Wellcome Trust, and will be encouraged to establish dialogue with donor-creators at an early stage, typically in early or mid career rather than at retirement, to ensure preservation of born-digital materials and to educate creators in preparing their papers for eventual transfer to the archives. We will become more like archivists in other institutions, whose primary role is the management of their institutional archives. Where will that leave the complexion of our collections in say fifty years? I hope we shall be able to continue to respond flexibly to external stimuli as in the past and to keep the ability to accept personal papers and institutional archives from non-Wellcome sources that may not be deemed of core interest or importance to our governors for the time being. Our ability to do so will of course depend heavily on the resources we have available, and at present we do I think have the capacity to combine both approaches. More vital perhaps will be the need to continue to gently persuade the scientifically-oriented hierarchy of the Wellcome Trust that history is about change and that it is appropriate for a medical historical library to develop its collections on a broad front so as to avoid the dread fate of mortgaging its future by too restrictive an association with the intellectual/philosophical paradigm of the moment.