Pharmacy workforce census

For further information in relation to the socio-demographic profile and employment patterns of pharmacists, please consult the following documents.

History of pharmacy

History of pharmacy

Although people have been using medicinal substances to treat themselves for as far back as there have been people, the pharmacy profession has more recent origins. Nevertheless, its roots can be found over 4000 years ago.

Pharmacy’s roots


The pharmacy profession can be traced back at least as far as the Sumerian population, living in modern day Iraq. From around 4000 BC, they used medicinal plants such as liquorice, mustard, myrrh, and opium. There were separate people who worked to prepare medicines, as a separate role from diagnosis and treatment which was carried out by medics. These precursors to pharmacists also combined their role with that of a priest. The Sumerians wrote the earliest surviving prescriptions from at least 2700 B.C. – so nearly 5000 years ago.

The Ancient Egyptians had specific preparers of medicine, known as Pastophor. Pharmacy was viewed as a high status branch of medicine, and again, like the Sumerians, these pharmacists were also priests who worked and practised in the temples.

From surviving papyrus scrolls, notably the Ebers Papyrus which dates from 1500 BC, we know that the Egyptians made and used infusions, ointments, lozenges, suppositories, lotions, enemas, and pills. The Ebers Papyrus includes 875 prescriptions and 700 drugs.

Meanwhile, in China in about the same era (2000 BC), a man called Shen Nung wrote the first Pen T’sao or native herbal, which contained descriptions of 365 plant-based drugs.

Stalls and shops selling medicinal goods existed around 1900 B.C. in the town of Sippara on the Euphrates river. However, the earliest recorded shop dealing with sales of medicines in London was opened in 1345.

The history of pharmacy in Britain

The word 'pharmacist' was first used in a publication in England in 1834 according to the Oxford English Dictionary in a novel by Lytton called The Last Days of Pompeii.   However, it was certainly in use from the 18th century with the meaning of someone who prepared and dispensed medicines.  Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 19th century most people working in this area would have called themselves chemists and/or druggists. The terms pharmacist and pharmaceutical chemist (now usually shortened to chemist) came later in the 1800s.

The word “pharmacy” has a much longer history in England. Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale (written around 1386) uses the word to describe a medical preparation of plants “farmacies of herbs.”

The term apothecary, often used between the 1600s and 1800s, does not refer to the chemist and druggist, or pharmacist.  It was used for individuals living in London who had passed the examinations of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, founded in 1617, or to their often less well qualified counterparts in the provinces. The role of the apothecary developed out of the role of the spicer or pepperer – or grocers – someone whose trade included crude drugs and prepared medicines.  The Grocers had their own Guild – professional body in the City of London- from the 13the century. The Apothecaries split from them in 1617 to form their own Society.

Although the apothecary's practice included a strong dispensing element, it was more all encompassing than the handling of drugs and chemicals. Apothecaries were also examining and treating patients, but they did not charge for these services – only for the medicines supplied. 

Following a ruling in the Rose Case (1701-1703/4), apothecaries became legally ratified members of the medical profession, able to prescribe as well as dispense medicines.  

As apothecaries moved into a more advisory role, pharmacists (or chemists and druggists) could develop their own area of preparation and supply of medicines. However, this put them in competition with the apothecaries who were also still involved in the same area.  The apothecaries attempted to control the chemists and druggists' activities in 1748 with a proposed new law to control the supply of medicines. This didn't progress.

In the early 1800s, an Association was formed to put together a proposal to Parliament to set up a body that examined and regulated apothecaries, surgeon-apothecaries, midwives and dispensing chemists. The chemists and druggists took action, arguing that they were best placed to set their own standards, as they were more experienced in making up prescriptions and making medicines than the apothecaries, so they should not be put under their control. The chemists and druggists won their argument, and when the Apothecaries Act of 1815 was finally created, the apothecaries did not have control over making medicines.

Visit our information sheets page for more historical information.

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Some key dates in pharmacy history

1820   The alkaloid quinine was first extracted from the bark of cinchona trees by two French chemists, Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Biename Caventou.

Diamorphine or Heroin was first synthesised from morphine.

1883   First edition of The Extra Pharmacopoeia published, edited by William Martindale and Dr Wynn Westcott.
1899   Aspirin, was launched by the German company.

Salvarsan, the first 'magic bullet' drug, effective against syphilis was discovered by Paul Ehrlich and Dr Sahachiro Hata.

1915   Medicine stamp duty was doubled as a wartime fundraiser.

The Venereal Disease Act prohibited the advertising of medicines for VD and selling
mixtures containing scheduled substances.  It introduced the concept of 'prescription only' medicines.


The Dangerous Drugs Act regulated the import and sale of potential 'drugs of addiction',
including the derivatives of opium, cocaine and cannabis so widely used in proprietary remedies.

1928   Penicillin discovered by Alexander Fleming.

The Food and Drugs Act prohibited the adulteration and mislabeling of drugs.

1939   The Cancer Act restricted the advertisement of products claiming to treat cancer.

Under the Finance (No. 2) Act purchase tax was imposed on a range of goods including most drugs and medicines.


The Pharmacy and Medicines Act repealed the old medicine stamp duty. It forbade the general advertisement of products claiming to treat a number of specific illnesses including Bright's disease, cataract epilepsy and TB, or to be effective in procuring an abortion.  For the first time manufacturers were required to list the active ingredients of products on their packaging.


The National Health Service made prescription medicine available to all. Until the introduction, in the 1950s, and subsequent hefty increasing of prescription charges, proprietary medicines were no longer seen as a cheap alternative to seeing the doctor.

1961   Ibuprofen was first synthesised by a team at the Boots Pure Drug Company in December.
1964   Introduction of Adverse Drug Reaction 'yellow card' scheme in reponse to the thalidomide tragedy of 1961.

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