Sunday, 7 November 2010

Remember, remember the 7th November?

November 7th is the 311th day of the year. There are now less than 50 days left before Christmas. The 7th also brings to a close British Sausage Week and last night we cooked and ate a few as we stood around our fireworks bonfire. This year we had six or seven young children join us, and I was surprised to hear that Guy Fawkes, does not get talked about in Schools anymore and the children had no idea what the ‘Guy’ on top of the fire symbolised. It seems that some of our history is being lost.

One group that does much too preserve our history and in particular our social and medical past is the Welcome Trust. The 7th November this year saw the last 'Nuns, Nurses and Nightingale's' themed tour of artefacts that trace the history of nursing, from informal care of the sick at home by family members, to a religious duty to trained vocational nurse, and ultimately to the autonomous professional we know today. I thought the focus for this event was interesting particularly as many nursing colleagues hold strong and disparaging views about the pharmaceutical industry and drug company sponsorship of training and other organisational events for health care staff.

Whilst I respect the right for others to hold these views, like most things, there are different aspects to every situation. For example, it was Sir Henry Wellcome who founded the Wellcome Trust. Wellcome co-founded a multinational pharmaceutical company. It was this company that developed many of the techniques still in use today to promote, branding and advertise medicines. Although amassing great wealth, Wellcome also funded pioneering medical research, and over the last 70 years the Welcome Trust has spent millions of pounds on research to improve our understanding of disease and to enable the development of treatments.

In January 1995, the Wellcome Trust Trustees sold most of their remaining interest in Wellcome to Glaxo, to form a new company, Glaxo Wellcome. This company merged in 2000 with SmithKlineBeecham creating GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and its annual spend on research increased to over £650 million a year. It is an inheritance that continues to contribute to the promotion of our health and well being.

I find it somewhat amusing then that Guy Fawkes is remembered (by a certain generation at least) in somewhat fond terms, yet he was a villain and a very unpleasant man. Unhealthy we tend to celebrate the 5th of November (Fireworks night) with fireworks and bonfires, baked potatoes, hotpot and treacle toffee and usually copious amounts of alcohol. Yet Sir Henry Welcome and all that he stood for, and the legacy he left for us all is often seen in such prejudiced terms because of perceptions of the relationship between profit and exploitation. Perhaps philanthropy (Sir Henery) like religion (Guy Fawkes) will always give rise to much misunderstanding.