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If a ranking were made of industries based on their contribution to mankind, pharmaceuticals would surely occupy a lofty position.

The industry is not without faults but, from the earliest painkillers and antibiotics to the latest cancer breakthroughs, drug companies have played a central role in the increased longevity and quality of human life over the past century.

Today, big pharma jostles with oil and technology among the world’s biggest industries.

So why does such an important sector have only one representative in our business pioneer ranking? Partly it tells us that the real trailblazers were usually the scientists who develop medicines rather than the executives who sell them.

Thus Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin, and Louis Pasteur, the Frenchman who developed some of the earliest vaccines, are better remembered than cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart, who founded Pfizer, the world’s biggest drugmaker by sales, with a $2,500 loan in 1849.

The sole pharmaceuticals entrepreneur to break into our top 50 was Henry Wellcome, co-founder of Burroughs Wellcome, a forerunner of today’s GlaxoSmithKline. By combining scientific research with innovative methods of marketing and branding, he helped establish the model for the modern multinational drugmaker.

A similar case could have been made for John and Frank Wyeth, the Philadelphia pharmacists who built one of America’s earliest pharmaceuticals giants on the back of supplying medicines to the Union army during the US civil war.

An even earlier pioneer was Friedrich Jacob Merck, whose purchase of a pharmacy in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1668 created the roots of the US and German companies that today share the Merck name. More recently, the founding of Genentech in the 1970s by biochemist Herbert Boyer and venture capitalist Robert Swanson paved the way for today’s booming biotech industry. The company’s sale to Roche for $46.8bn in 2009 signalled the gradual shift by big pharma from chemical-based pills to more complex biological therapies.

And what about Art Levinson, Genentech’s long-time chief executive? He is now chairman of Apple and chief executive of a Google-backed biotech venture, Calico, set up to research age-related diseases. He is at the forefront of one of the most powerful new trends in healthcare: the potential for digital technology and big data to open new ways of monitoring people’s wellbeing and identifying patterns that could lead to new cures or preventions for disease.

But, as a flag-bearer for pharma, Henry Wellcome is ideal. From his wild west upbringing in Wisconsin to becoming a pillar of Britain’s business and scientific establishment, Wellcome’s story is as colourful as it is unlikely. His achievements live on almost 80 years later not only via GSK but also through the Wellcome Trust, which he arranged to be set up after his death as a source of support for medical research. Today, it invests more than £700m a year in science and has recently been at the heart of international efforts to find a vaccine or cure for Ebola. For an industry whose mission to prolong lives has often been undermined by ethical scandal, Wellcome represents pharma’s more appealing face.

Henry Wellcome

Henry Wellcome

Henry Wellcome was born in 1853 in a log cabin in northern Wisconsin. He died 82 years later in London as a British knight, leaving a legacy that still resonates today. Wellcome’s pioneering role in the pharmaceuticals industry began in his teenage years, when he learned to make medicines while working at his uncle’s drug store.

After a spell as a travelling drug salesman, he crossed the Atlantic to form a partnership with friend and fellow pharmacist Silas Burroughs, importing US medicines to Europe. They set up their own research laboratories, helping to bring scientific credibility to a fledgling industry hitherto notorious for quackery. Their company, Burroughs Wellcome, formed part of the roots of today’s GlaxoSmithKline, the biggest UK drugmaker.

Sir Henry bequeathed his fortune to the Wellcome Trust. It is the world’s second-largest funder of medical research after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with an £18bn endowment. Another legacy is the Wellcome Collection – a London museum based on Sir Henry’s passion for collecting paraphernalia, from Napoleon’s toothbrush to ancient sex aids. His own ashes were lost for decades among the hoarded artefacts. They were discovered in 1987 and interred in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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