Object of the month: a tabloid chest

28 May 2013

 Advertisement for Burroughs Wellcome showing various situations in which a Tabloid medicine chest would be useful
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Advertisement for Burroughs Wellcome showing various situations in which a Tabloid medicine chest would be useful. Wellcome Images

This year is the 101st anniversary of the death of the Antarctic explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott. To mark this occasion Suzanne  Paterson considers a small but not unimportant item carried by Scott on the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition.

Henry Wellcome was a man of many talents. He was inspiring, innovative and most of all incredibly aware of the importance of good marketing.  He astutely recognised that good publicity would enhance the reputation of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. products and thus maximise profits. He was a keen social networker: what he lacked in Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook accounts, he made up for by throwing lavish parties and by courting the glitterati of contemporary English society. Oscar Wilde, Joseph Lister and Henry Morton Stanley were all part of his sparkling social circle and he took full advantage of this. Using his social connections, Henry was quick to employ the practice of celebrity endorsement, but stand aside Cheryl Cole and Beyoncé, for it was eminent explorers, and not popular recording artists, that were the cream of Henry’s crop. Henry gave Burroughs Wellcome & Co. medicine chests to the likes of Henry Morton Stanley, Ernest Shackleton and to Hugh Ruttledge’s 1933 expedition to scale Mount Everest, all completely free of charge.  Even President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a beneficiary of Henry’s not entirely altruistic generosity. Nonetheless, explorers were quick to endorse Wellcome’s products as they were filled with Burroughs Wellcome & Co.’s patented ‘Tabloid’ medicines that were particularly suited to the explorers’ needs. The medicine chests were compact, lightweight and efficient so it is little wonder that they made their way across the globe.

There is, however, one particularly fascinating medicine chest, which is this month’s  object of the month. It is the medicine chest given to Captain Robert Falcon Scott as part of the supplies for the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition.

 A Burroughs Wellcome Co medicine chest used on the British Antarctic Expedition
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A Burroughs Wellcome & Co. medicine chest used on the British Antarctic Expedition,. Wellcome Images

Led by Captain Scott aboard the Dundee whaler the Terra Nova, the British Antarctic Expedition had multiple aims. The crew hoped to carry out extensive exploration and scientific experiments including biology, geology, glaciology, meteorology, and geophysics along the coast of Victoria Land on the Ross Ice Shelf. In addition, the expedition also aimed to be the first to reach the geographical South Pole. Having arrived in Antarctica, Scott and four crew members set out to take the pole, but they were beaten by the Norwegian team, headed by Roald Amundsen, by a mere 33 days. Tragically, Scott and his party died on their return journey to base camp, just 11 miles from their next food depot. When their bodies were discovered eight months later, beside them were two Burroughs Wellcome & Co. medicine chests.

The medicine chests were a veritable pharmacopoeia; they contained cascara sagrada, a mild laxative; ipecacuanha powder for gastric irritation; Dover’s powder, ipecacuanha with opium for pain relief; and quinine, used to treat malaria. Scott, however, was prepared to use the medicines for a purpose for which they were not originally intended. Knowing that the party were unlikely to survive their ordeal, Scott ordered Edward Wilson, the expedition’s Chief Scientist and a qualified doctor, to divide the painkillers between them so they could each end their life on their own terms. Writing in his diary on the 11th March 1912, Scott states, “I practically ordered Wilson to hand over the means of ending our troubles to us, so that anyone of us may know how to do so.” After ransacking the medicine chests Scott, Bowers and Oates had thirty opium tabloids apiece and Wilson, the morphine. It seems, however, that Scott had a change of heart. He wrote on either 22nd or 23rd March: “no fuel and only one or two left of food – must be near the end. Have decided that it shall be natural – we shall march for the depot with our without our effects and die in our tracks.”

 Tabloid medicine chest issued to the Scott Polar Expedition, found with their bodies
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Tabloid medicine chest issued to the Scott Polar Expedition, found with their bodies. Wellcome Images.

This medicine chest also provides a fascinating insight into Henry’s devotion to the marketing of his products. In their marketing literature Burroughs Wellcome & Co. claimed ‘First at the North Pole and First at the South Pole’. That’s right, a Burroughs Wellcome & Co. medicine chest was part of the first successful venture to the geographical South Pole, only it belonged to Amundsen and not Scott. Securing the South Pole would have been a great achievement for the British Empire and although my research is yet to uncover whether Henry donated a medicine chest to the Norwegian’s rival effort, if he did then this suggests that despite having become a British subject, Henry’s loyalty lay with his company and not with the honour of his now adopted nation. A true businessman to the core.

Scott’s medicine chest, which is on display in Wellcome Collection’s permanent gallery, Medicine Man, is quietly unassuming.  It is not flashy and it does not instantly catch your eye but this small, grubby, canvas-covered box has made the epic journey to Antarctica and back again – something that most of us can only dream of. Indeed, Scott’s medicine chest also reminds us of the fickle nature of the Antarctic continent and the sheer magnitude of Scott’s achievement, however tragic. If Sir Ranulph Fiennes supported by modern technology and the best healthcare had to withdraw from his recent attempt to cross the South Pole during the Antarctic winter, then it is all the more remarkable that Scott’s party, armed only with basic provisions and two of these medicine chests, made it as far as they did.

Suzanne Paterson is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.