GSK marks 300th Anniversary

Seven times great nephew of founder continues heritage of discovery and innovation

  • The Plough Court Pharmacy, the family company which later grew into Allen and Hanburys, established 9th November 1715
  • Allen and Hanburys became part of Glaxo Laboratories in 1958. In Glaxo and Burroughs Wellcome merged in 1995 to form Glaxo Wellcome, which became GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 2000, following a merger with SmithKline Beecham.
  • Today, GSK continues to research into six key therapeutic areas across HIV, Oncology, Vaccines, Immuno-inflammation and Respiratory diseases
  • In the last fifty years, modern R&D techniques have led to the discovery by GSK scientists of more than 60 medicines and vaccines available to be prescribed in the NHS today.
  • It is estimated that some 20,000 medicines, vaccines, remedies and consumer products have been brought to market by GSK and its predecessors throughout its 300 year history.– 

The UK’s largest pharmaceutical company [i] GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), today marks its 300th birthday. 

On 9 November 1715, Silvanus Bevan from Swansea established the Plough Court pharmacy in London, the family company that grew into Allen and Hanburys which, in turn, become part of GlaxoWellcome. GlaxoWellcome merged with SmithKline Beecham on 1 January 2001 to become GlaxoSmithKline.

From Silvanus and a couple of assistants in the back of the apothecary shop, GSK has grown to employ 100,000 people worldwide, some 15,000 of them working in the UK across six research and development centres, nine manufacturing sites and five offices – including GSK’s global headquarters in London. 

The General Manager of GSK UK Pharma, Nikki Yates, says it is a remarkable milestone for any company to be moving into its fourth century:  

“I’m extremely proud of all the history we have behind us and the foundation that these generations of people have given us to continue our mission to help more people do more, feel better and live longer. It is a quite remarkable achievement to be able to trace our roots back to one young entrepreneur in 1715.

“It is clear that our predecessors worked hard to stay ahead and to be the best. We continue in their footsteps: not just seeking to innovate in what we do but also in how we do it. That is why we were the first company in our industry to sign up to the AllTrials clinical transparency campaign and, most recently, the first to adopt groundbreaking changes to make ourselves more transparent in our relationships with prescribers [ii]”

GSK’s heritage has been shaped by hundreds of scientists and doctors, including five Nobel Laureates [iii], with links to a sixth who used his Nobel Prize winnings to set up a vaccines facility that is now operated by GSK.[iv]  

By coincidence, one of the scientists working today in new medicines discovery at GSK’s global R&D centre in Stevenage, Graham Simpson, is the seven times great nephew of Silvanus Bevan:

“As I lead a team seeking to discover novel approaches to treat cancers and muscle wasting disorders, I am carrying on the legacy of my direct ancestor. His focus on bringing high quality, safe and innovative medicines to patients is continued in our work today. He cannot have imagined that his start-up apothecary would be the founding business of GSK. We have come a very long way since then and I am immensely pleased to be one of the many scientists who are following in Silvanus Bevan’s footsteps.”

GSK’s Heritage Archivist, Jill Moretto, says the earliest records show that on the 9th November 1715, GSK’s founder married and moved into the building that housed his new business:

“Silvanus Bevan travelled to London from Swansea in 1708 to train as an apprentice apothecary, a forerunner to today’s pharmacists. On completing his training in 1715, he set up Plough Court Pharmacy, just off Lombard Street in London. Ten years later his brother joined the growing business. People visiting London soon became familiar with the Bevans’ Galenic [v] products, based on plants and minerals. By the late 1720’s, the brothers were exporting products to British colonies around the world. 

“Over the years the companies that came together to form GSK have been woven into the health of the UK, and much of the world. They provided most of the antibiotics used by UK forces during the Second World War [vi]; they discovered vaccines and life changing medicines for conditions such as asthma, stomach ulcers and HIV; and this has seen the creation of the world’s biggest over-the-counter consumer healthcare company following GSK’s deal with Novartis.”

[i] The largest pharmaceutical company by value headquartered in the UK.

[ii] GSK UK is this year introducing a series of changes to its business model, becoming the first pharmaceutical company to, amongst other changes, end the practice of setting individual sales targets for sales staff and ceasing to pay healthcare professionals to speak on its behalf to other prescribers. These changes are also taking place across GSK worldwide.

[iii] The five Nobel Laureates who worked in companies that have become part of GSK are:

·        Sir Henry Dale (1936) – showing the role of acetylcholine in neural transmission

·        Sir John Vane (1982) – for work on understanding the mechanism of aspirin on prostaglandins

·        Dr George Hitchings (1988); Dr Gertrude Elion (1988); Sir James Black (1988) – jointly for their discoveries of important principles for drug selection that later led to the discovery of a host of new medicines.

[iv] Nobel Laureate Emil von Behring, recognised in 1901 for developing the diphtheria vaccine, used his prize money to found what is now GSK’s Marburg vaccines site in Germany.

[v] Galenics are named after the ancient Greek medicine man called Galen, a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher who lived in the second century AD.

[vi] Glaxo produced over 80 per cent of all penicillin doses in the UK field and base hospitals during WWII.


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