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Building brands: 1919 – 1949

In the heightened period of consumerism following the First World War, our legacy companies began to consolidate their products, building brand portfolios and investing in consumer advertising. This was also a period of landmark scientific breakthroughs, including the discovery of insulin and penicillin.

Beecham’s Powders  and Macleans advertisements
Beecham’s Powders and Macleans advertisements, c.1930s

Maclean your teeth

In 1919, during the period of post-First World War consumerism, Alex Maclean’s first toothpaste appeared in British shops, and Macleans Peroxide Toothpaste was one of the first whitening formulas brought to market in 1927.

In New York, a Russian immigrant named Alexander Block opened a drugstore in 1907. He acquired several dental product brands in the 1920s and 1930s and developed a special cleansing powder for denture wearers, registered as Polident, in 1935. 

Don’t let flu grip you

In 1926, the second product of Beecham Pills and Estates Ltd. (registered two years earlier), Beecham’s Powders, was released for relief of cold and flu symptoms.

During the 1930s, the company expanded, acquiring Eno’s, Veno’s, Macleans, Lucozade and County Perfumers, to build a strong brand portfolio.   

  • 1919

    Maclean toothpaste first sold in British shops

  • 1926

    Beecham’s Powders for cold and flu relief released

  • 1935

    Polident cleansing powder first registered

Giant preserved pancreas, grey background
Cow pancreas used to produce insulin, GSK heritage archives

New discovery: insulin

In 1921, insulin was discovered as a way of managing diabetes. Legacy companies Burroughs Wellcome and Allen & Hanburys and were among the first in the UK to reproduce insulin for commercial use. By 1923, Allen & Hanburys produced 95% of the country’s insulin. 

However, by 1924, Burroughs Wellcome had modified their processes to produce insulin on a large scale from cow pancreas. 

Aerial photo of Glaxo’s new headquarters at Greenford, UK, 1935
Aerial photo of Glaxo’s new headquarters at Greenford, UK, 1935

Glaxo Labs

In 1924, Joseph Nathan & Co.’s chemist, Harry Jephcott, licensed a method to produce a Vitamin D supplement – Ostelin, which became the first Joseph Nathan & Co. pharmaceutical product. Joseph Nathan & Co. Ltd.’s pharmaceutical enterprise was established as a subsidiary company, Glaxo Laboratories Ltd., in 1935. 

By 1947, Glaxo Labs (as it was known) had surpassed its parent company in terms of sales and product range, and bought out Joseph Nathan & Co Ltd. 

  • 1924

    First Joseph Nathan & Co. pharmaceutical product produced

  • 1935

    Glaxo Laboratories Ltd. established as subsidiary of Joseph Nathan & Co. Ltd.

  • 1947

    Glaxo Laboratories Ltd. buys out Joseph Nathan & Co. Ltd.

Picture of New Smith Kline & French Co. laboratory at Spring Garden St., Philadelphia
New Smith Kline & French Co. analytical control laboratory at Spring Garden St., Philadelphia, US, 1949 (Photo by Cortlandt V.D. Hubbard)

Becoming specialists

Smith, Kline & French Co. also spent the 1930s and 1940s focusing on the development and sale of pharmaceuticals. Product consolidation (from over 500 to just 14 by 1937) and new product launches helped solidify the company’s reputation in speciality drug development.  

The company opened a new Philadelphia headquarters in 1949.

Portrait of Sir Henry Dale, first chairman of the Wellcome Trust
Sir Henry Dale, first chairman of the Wellcome Trust, c.1930s

Medical discoveries

In 1924, Henry Wellcome brought together his company, Burroughs Wellcome & Co., with his philanthropic pursuits and research entities to form the Wellcome Foundation Ltd. Upon Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936, ownership of the Foundation was transferred to the Wellcome Trust. 

Its first chairman was Sir Henry Dale, former director of Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories. In 1936, Dale won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his landmark discovery relating to chemical transmission of nerve impulses.

  • 1924

    Wellcome Foundation Ltd. established

  • 1936

    Wellcome Trust established; chairman Sir Henry Dale wins Nobel Prize in Medicine

  • 1945

    Beecham Research Laboratories Ltd. established

  • 1947

    Beecham Group opens new research and development site at Brockham Park, UK

Ladies plug filled penicillin flasks with cotton wool prior to sterilisation, Glaxo factory (1944)
Ladies plug filled penicillin flasks with cotton wool prior to sterilisation, Glaxo factory, Watford, UK, 1944

Penicillin: the gamechanger

Penicillin had been developed into an antibiotic medicine during the 1930s. By 1944, Glaxo owned four UK facilities dedicated to producing penicillin, including one split-funded with Wellcome, that produced 7.5 billion units of penicillin annually. Approximately 80% of UK penicillin production was routed through Glaxo’s Greenford site.

In 1945, Beecham Group established the Beecham Research Laboratories, its R&D arm. In 1947, a new site was opened in a ceremony officiated by Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.