Book review: An infinity of things

The desire to collect seems to have nearly universal appeal. Indeed, most of us have been relatively serious about collecting a certain class of objects at some point in time. In my case, I was interested in collecting coins and stamps for several years, and occasionally I still return to my collections and admire them.

For most of us, collecting is just a hobby. Perhaps it takes a substantial amount of time and effort to develop a good collection, but there are other, more important, aspects to our lives. Occasionally, though, collecting becomes the predominant force in one’s life, and eir collection because eir center of existence.

Few people have ever been more obsessed with collecting than Sir Henry Wellcome, the subject of Frances Larson’s book An infinity of things. The cofounder of a successful pharmaceutical company, Wellcome had plenty of money to devote to his collecting dreams, and he built up what is probably the largest private collection ever assembled at around one million objects.

Due to his day job, Wellcome was most interested in collecting medical equipment. This seemed both to drive and to inform his scholarly inclinations in the subject, which were centered around historical medicine. With this in mind, he built up a historical medicine collection, which later became his prized Historical Medicine Museum.

To his credit, Wellcome didn’t use his historical medicine collection to say “Look at these primitive people and the silly things they believed in,” as so many others might have. Instead, he considered them to be very serious efforts, and that historical medicine typically contains at least some validity, even though it isn’t generally as effective as the modern stuff.

In everything he did, from his business to his collection to his scholarship, Wellcome wanted to do, to have, and to know everything, and to present it to the world as a fait accompli. While he was able to do a good job in his business with this attitude, it failed him to some degree in his collecting, and to a greater degree in his scholarship. The plan for Wellcome was always to open a museum that would display the entire history of a subject, so that it could not be improved at all. So, although Wellcome and his team were gathering hoards of objects from around the world, Wellcome was not satisfied with the state of his collection. He did finally open the museum after many years, even though his collection was not complete to his satisfaction.

His scholarship fared worse. His plan was to write encyclopedic volumes on historical medicine, and in particular the use of animal substances in medicine. While most people are contented with giving fairly thorough exposition to a particular branch of a subject, Wellcome wanted to do everything. He was not willing to publish anything until he felt that the subject was finished, that it could be improved no further. Furthermore, he wanted this project to be conducted in utmost secrecy, lest a unscrupulous rival were to beat him to the punch. Like most projects of this scale, this one fell through.

The secrecy and paranoia that helped to undermine Wellcome’s animal substances project caused him difficulties in the rest of his scholarship. He had teams of people working under him on his collection, many of whom were academics or aspiring academics. Yet, he would allow them to publish nothing for fear that some of his fellow collectors would pick up some of his purchasing techniques or realize the scope of his plan and try to disrupt it somehow.

His suppression of scholarship among his staff frequently caused tension between Wellcome and his staff members. Most notably, he ended up in bitter dispute with his deputy of 25 years, Charles Thompson, due to the latter’s academic ambitions. That’s quite a shame, because Thompson was brilliant at his job and just about the ideal person for managing Wellcome’s collection and purchases. After the two had a dispute as a result of a book Thompson published, Wellcome fired Thompson, and from that point on, the two were not on speaking terms.

In spite of Wellcome’s dismissal of scholarship among his staff, though, he felt that his collection was primarily a tool for study and could improve the research of students and academics. He always claimed to be so encouraging of academia and would invite lots of students in to do research … some day. Some day never came; Wellcome died before his collection reached a point that would cause him to present it seriously to the world. (He did allow a few people to view bits of it, but the general public was not ordinarily admitted, and even serious researchers were sometimes presented with absurd obstacles and never ended up seeing it.)

To me, the most exciting facet of An infinity of things was a description of auction room antics. One might suspect that, in an auction, one simply bids for items up to the price ey thinks they’re worth, pays, and takes the ones ey won home. This, however, would reveal one’s naïveté, as that would be a bad strategy. What one should do, instead, is first to try to strike a bargain with the auctioneer to prevent certain lots from even going to auction. If this fails, and it usually does, one should hire an agent, unknown to everyone else in the room, to bid on eir behalf. Furthermore, occasionally one should bid above the previously-decided-upon price in order to frustrate eir rivals.

Wellcome’s main strategy was to acquire as much as possible at low prices, even if it meant passing over valuable and important items. A typical Wellcome purchase was around £2. Of course, that’s quite a bit more in today’s money; I haven’t checked, but a quick calculation suggests that it would be in the vicinity of $200 in 2010 US currency. Still, quantity of quality was clearly the name of the game in Wellcome’s mind.

I found this book to be alternately enthralling and tedious. I loved reading about auction tactics, but I eventually grew tired of continued rehashing of Wellcome’s perfectionistic tendencies and his overly stingy attitude toward his staff’s academic ambitions. Of course, the story would be far less complete without those, so I shalln’t complain too much. I’m glad I read this book, as I learned about a fairly important bit of history of whose existence I was previously entirely oblivious.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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One Response to Book review: An infinity of things

  1. Pingback: Book review: Being wrong | Quasi-Coherent

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