From baby food to global behemoth

By Peter Griffin 25/06/2010

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman is in London for the 350th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Society of London and this week gave an interesting speech on the history of UK-NZ scientific collaboration.

You can read the speech below or download it on the PMCSA website. A few interesting statistics from the speech illustrate the level of scientific collaboration between the two countries:

38 [Royal Society of London] Fellows were born in New Zealand although less than 10 have carried out their research there — unfortunately we export scientists as effectively and with as high a quality as the food we export.

We think that currently more than 30% of New Zealand scientists still have a significant association with a British counterpart and Britain remains the New Zealand science community’s most important partner.

The old Glaxo factory at Bunnythorpe
The old Glaxo factory at Bunnythorpe

But the most interesting nugget in the speech by Sir Peter, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, is his anecdote about the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline (formed in 2000 through the merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham). I had no idea that the Glaxo in the name of the world’s fourth largest pharmaceutical company came from New Zealand. Sir Peter explains:

Glaxo, which later became Glaxo Wellcome and whose fortunes allowed the [Wellcome] Trust to become what it is now, started in New Zealand as a small infant food company and was started by one of my wife’s relatives, but somewhat unwisely he sold out 100 years ago. My life might have been somewhat different.

Here’s some more detail from Glaxo Smith Kline’s own corporate history:

The Glaxo in the name traces its history to the colonial New Zealand of 1873. Local entrepreneur Joseph Nathan established a trading company in Wellington that was a forerunner to Glaxo’s milk powder drying operation at Bunnythorpe, Manawatu.

Glaxo really got going in the early 20th century when the Nathans got into processing dried milk. The Manuwatu OurRegion website has a good history of Glaxo from the 1870s to the 1990s. Here’s where things really started to get interesting for the company:

During World War I dried milk sales rocketed as the product was adopted as part of the daily diet of the troops in the trenches.  The Glaxo business did well and by the end of the war was ready to move onto the next stage of expansion.

The new field of vitamin supplement development and marketing became the next success.  A vitamin supplement for the ’Glaxo’ babyfood was the first step, to be followed by an ever-increasing range of ’health products’.  In 1937 Glaxo Laboratories was formed and from that time the field of pharmaceuticals became a major part of the business.

Glaxo had a factory in Palmerston North up to 1996. The company still has a presence here, but for marketing, distribution and supply. How different for the country things may have been if New Zealand investors had retained a stake in the business – and continued to undertake significant pharmaceutical R&D here…

[slideshare id=4607529&doc=pmcsa-100624164035-phpapp01&type=d]