A very Wellcome trust

Prof. Sir. Mark Walport, who directs one of the world's largest medical research funding philanthropies, visited Israel recently.

Prof. Sir. Mark Walport 390 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Prof. Sir. Mark Walport 390
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
It has been a galloping ride since Henry Wellcome’s 1853 birth in a log cabin in the American Wild West, graduation from Philadelphia Pharmacy School, work as a traveling salesman of tree-bark remedies, move to England and partnership in an English pharmaceutical company that evolved into fourth largest in the world. Before his death, Wellcome was made a knight of the British Realm for contributions to his adopted country.
Today, the London-based foundation established in his name when Wellcome died 76 years ago finances medical research and other projects to fight disease, promote health and spread understanding of science. With its 550 employees and an endowment equivalent to some $21 billion, Wellcome Trust is a powerful engine promoting healthcare advances in Britain and globally, especially in the developing world.
For the first time since he became head of Britain’s largest independent charity, Wellcome Trust director Sir Prof. Mark Walport recently visited Israel, touring research and medical institutions for a few days and even seeing a cousin who lives here. The 59-year-old immunologist and rheumatologist was himself knighted in the 2009 New Year Honors list for services to medical research.
Walport’s wife is also a physician, and their children are “all physical scientists, three in England and one studying in America.”
The professor had an active clinical practice, and his own research career, focused on the immunology and genetics of rheumatic diseases. But when he was made Wellcome Trust’s director, he decided to give up work with patients and in the lab because of lack of time.
Last in Israel over two decades ago, Walport also delivered the Henry Cohen Memorial Lecture of the Jewish Medical Association UK, which promotes links among Jewish health professionals in that country and between the UK and Israel. He was invited to Israel and accompanied during his tour by University College London emeritus professor of immunopathology David Katz, who is a frequent visitor and fluent in Hebrew.
“Henry Wellcome certainly was a talented character with a colorful and amazing personal story,” Walport told The Jerusalem Post in an interview during his visit, and his life has been documented by photos and biographical information amassed by Wellcome Trust. “Sir Henry didn’t live a lavish lifestyle; he spent his money going around world and collecting information on themes such as the history of human health. He saw very clearly the need for rigorous science. He also excavated in the Sudan and commissioned archeological digs because of his passion for archeological finds.”
Wellcome was born in the forests of Wisconsin to his father Solomon, a farmer and member of the Second Adventist (anti-alcohol) Christian church and a devout Quaker mother. As a boy, during expeditions to nearby Indian burial mounds Wellcome discovered a Neolithic stone arrowhead that sparked a lifelong interest in traditional ways of life.
When Henry was eight, his father’s potato crop failed, forcing the family to travel for weeks by covered wagon to Minnesota with others to protect each other from the Indians.
When he was 13, Henry left school to work in his uncle Solomon’s store, where he was a physician and prepared medications with mortars, pestles, bottles of chemicals; it was there and accompanying his uncle on his rounds that the boy’s interest in medicines and doctoring was aroused. After 38 Sioux Indian chiefs were hanged following an uprising when the white men took their land, Wellcome became a longtime sympathizer and even supported the Indians financially.
At the age of 17, he went to Rochester, Minnesota, where he worked for his uncle’s friend, Dr. William James Mayo, later one of the seven founders of the famed Mayo Clinic, who sent Henry to study pharmacy in Chicago and then Philadelphia. After peddling medicines and making his own, he joined a large New York pharmaceutical company named Caswell Hazard & Co, and then McKesson and Robbins to promote their newly-introduced gelatin-coated tablets.
This led to Wellcome’s search for Indian remedies in South American rainforests, from where he brought back botanic samples for testing. He also found new sources of quinine from tree bark in the Andes. His articles in American and British pharmaceutical journals on his expedition resulted in exchanges of letters with an old classmate, Silas Burroughs, who eventually set up with him London pharmaceutical company Burroughs- Wellcome & Co., which became one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
A member of wealthy social circles, Wellcome continued to give charity, but he had a tragic personal life, having a single child, a sickly son sent as a toddler to live with foster parents, and separating from and finally divorcing his wife.
Wellcome had no surviving direct descendants.
After his death at 82 in London, the Wellcome Group – later becoming the Wellcome Trust – was established in 1936 under the instructions of his will and endowed by his pharmaceutical fortune.
“His will specified that the company would be owned by charitable trustees who would be given a broad mission to fund research to improve human and animal health,” said Walport. “We strive to embed biomedical science in the historical and cultural landscape, so that it is valued and there is mutual trust between researchers and the wider public. From the beginning, we funded research in medical history and in medical and science museums, galleries, the British Museum, London’s Science Museum and more. Just recently we sponsored a large museum exhibition about the brain.”
With the enormous possibility of development in chemistry, bacteriology, pharmacy and allied sciences, “there are likely to be vast fields opened for productive enterprise for centuries to come,” Sir Henry wrote as his last will and testament.
Five trustees were appointed to use income from the capital to advance medical research and understanding of its history.
And so it went.
The Trust owned Wellcome Foundation Limited, the pharmaceutical company, which introduced a variety of blockbuster drugs including Zyloric (1966), Septrin (1967) and Zovirax (1981), the hugely successful cold-sore cream that became the world’s first billion-dollar drug. Wellcome’s pharmaceutical giant merged with Glaxo, and the resulting pharmaceutical giant eventually settled down as GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) after a merger of GlaxoWellcome PLC and SmithKline Beecham PLC.
Henry Wellcome’s name disappeared, but it remains in the powerful Wellcome Trust.
“Our vision is to achieve extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. In pursuit of this, we support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities,” according to Walport. Wellcome Trust focuses on supporting outstanding researchers, accelerating the application of research and exploring medicine in historical and cultural contexts. We believe passionately that breakthroughs emerge when the most talented researchers are given the resources and freedom they need to pursue their goals.”
Wellcome Trust does not conduct any medical research; instead, it provides the funds to worthy researchers. While Walport admires Israel’s high-level medical research, Wellcome Trust does not fund any of it, he said.
“Most of the hundreds of research projects that we finance each year are in the UK, and only 20 percent globally. As Sir Henry focused on the developing world, most of that money goes to places like sub-Saharan Africa and Vietnam, but not to advanced countries like Israel,” he explained. “Israeli medical research is very good, but there is also very good research in other parts of the world,” said Walport, who in addition to meeting top people at Jerusalem medical centers also visited the new Galilee Medical Faculty in Safed.
Asked about the ongoing efforts by certain extremist groups in academia pushing for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of high learning and research, Walport declared: “We believe in the importance of scholarship. We at the Wellcome Trust would never be involved in such a boycott. We are apolitical.
A small number of people can make a lot of noise. I have no time for such things.”
Discussing the trust’s financing activities, he said: “We fund a wide array of research into how genes affect health and disease and work to ensure that this knowledge leads to new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent illness. We support research to improve understanding of how the brain functions and to find improved approaches for treating brain and mental health disorders. Some of the most important research discoveries we have funded involve mental health, which in the scientific world in general does not receive enough attention. One has to understand the functioning of the normal brain before studying the badly malfunctioning brain,” Walport continued.
“We also fund quite extensively ‘orphan drugs’ that affect a small number of people.”
Other major fields that receive the trust’s financial support are the search for new ways to prevent and treat the bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases; investigating development, ageing and chronic disease; connecting environment, nutrition, climate change and food security; and maximizing the health benefits of genetics and genomics.
The trust “wants to speak to the public about science. The communication of science is also changing,” he concluded.
“Research must be made public and be free within six months of publication.
The trust is completely independent.
Nobody – including the government – can put pressure on us on whom to finance. It is all objective.. We are very fortunate.”