An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World

An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World


By (author) Frances Larson


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  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Format: Hardback | 368 pages
  • Dimensions: 154mm x 238mm x 26mm | 739g
  • Publication date: 1 December 2009
  • Publication City/Country: Oxford
  • ISBN 10: 0199554463
  • ISBN 13: 9780199554461
  • Illustrations note: 8pp colour plates, 30 in-text b/w illustrations
  • Sales rank: 470,319

Product description

An Infinity of Things tells the story of one of the largest private collections ever created, and the life of the man behind it. Wellcome planned a great museum filled with treasures from all corners of the globe, charting the history of human health from prehistory to the present day. The breadth of his vision was matched only by the depth of his pockets. During the opening decades of the twentieth century he acquired a collection so large that later generations of staff took to describing its contents by the ton. But Wellcome's museum was never finished, and his collection was still stored in vast warehouses when he died, unseen and incomplete. Today, after decades of work by his successors, artefacts from the collection can be seen in museums and libraries throughout the world. Demonstrating what can happen when a collector's aspirations are left unconstrained by wealth, Frances Larson explores Wellcome's life through his possessions, revealing the many tensions in his character: between his talents as a businessman and his desire for scholarly recognition; his curiosity and his perfectionism; and his philanthropic aspirations and his drive for personal glory.

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Author information

Frances Larson is Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Anthropology, at Durham University.

Review quote

A fascinating book and one for the shelves of anyone interested in science, collecting - or just a plain good read. Ian Simmons, Fortean Times Well-researched, readable and penetratingly honest book. Andrew Robinson, History Today Featured in 'The Sunday Times Books of the Year 2009', Frances Wilson, The Sunday Times, Featured in 'The best books of 2009' Eleanor Harris, New Scientist A curious and original work. Sunday Times Admirably balanced. The Sunday Times Rigorously researched and fluidly written. Wendy Moore, Sunday Telegraph Larson's book is a Poe-like tale of a man who literally became buried under his own unquenchable avarice. Wendy Moore, Sunday Telegraph Accurately billed not as a biography but as "the biography of a collection" the book is penetratingly honest. Andrew Robinson, New Scientist In places it reads as a gripping story of a bit of a monster. Andrew Robinson, New Scientist Absorbing. Ms. Larson's story of Wellcome's truly odd and amazing mania shows how it was rooted in his business and intellectual interests but came to control his existence. Wall Street Journal Excellent book. Richard Fortey, Literary Review The book is penetratingly places it reads as a gripping story. Andrew Robinson, New Scientist Eccentric behaviour makes for great reading and Henry Wellcome's biography will have you mesmerised. Patrick Neale, Bookseller Choice People...will be guaranteed pleasure and delight from this quirky biography. Patrick Neale, Bookseller's Choice

Table of contents

1. Quite indescribable disorder ; PART ONE: ROOTS ; 2. Herewith please find three rolls of chocolate foil ; 3. A very full and complete volume ; 4. The ideal of my heart ; PART TWO: TACTICS ; 5. An historical exhibition of rare and curious objects ; 6. Excuse me Mr Treve ; 7. Fellow feeling as a collector ; 8. The whole of India should be ransacked ; 9. An impossible man to deal with ; PART THREE: OUTCOMES ; 10. The finest historical medical museum in the world ; 11. When the whole is complete, it will be an exact facsimile of the original ; 12. This is the History of Medicine ; 13. All tied up in knots ; 14. We need very complete collections of all their fabrications ; 15. This International Historical Museum ; PART FOUR: LEGACIES ; 16. Shelve it ; 17. Ingrained habits of cautiousness ; 18. Sir Henry Wellcome is dead ; 19. Honour to whom honour is due ; Notes ; Bibliography ; Index