Women pharmacists in the 20th Century

Female pharmacist

Although the issue of female membership of the Society had been resolved, women still had to work hard to achieve within the pharmacy profession. This wasn’t because they were less able academically. In fact, by 1925, there had been five female winners of the Society’s Pereira medal, seven Redwood scholars, five Jacob Bell scholars and fifteen Burroughs scholars.

"the woman chemist has come to stay"
Letter to The Pharmaceutical Journal
from "M.P.S.", March 25 1922

What was difficult was that women’s pay and job opportunities were still limited by their gender.  The majority of women in the early 20th century seem to have been working in hospitals and institutions as dispensers, or as managers or assistants in retail pharmacy.  Very few were running their own businesses.  Female pharmacists’ pay was lower than that of school teachers, bank clerks or civil servants at a clerical grade. The Association of Women Pharmacists, particularly through their employment bureau, were able to begin to put pressure on employers to improve salaries and conditions of employment.

The shortage of pharmacists available to work in the First World War meant, as in other professions, that women were able to increase their representation in the profession. The war also made the female workforce more visible:

"To say that only now women are coming to the forefront in usefulness sounds like the sudden awakening of a slumberer to economic consciousness. They have for a long time played in most large pharmacies a great and successful part, and the abnormal demand arising, as it naturally does in war time, does so in the first instance principally because they have been ready and eager and fit to step into the breach…"
Letter to The Pharmaceutical Journal from M.P.S. January 3rd 1916

Although there was a spate of opposition to the growing number of women pharmacists in the 1920s, their position was getting firmer.

Very gradually, NAWP’s members also began to represent women at Society level.  In 1918, Margaret Buchanan became the first female member of Council.  In 1924, Agnes Borrowman was invited to join the Society’s board of examiners after two years of pressure from the Association. Jean Kennedy Irvine, the first woman President of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1947, was also an active member of NAWP.

The proportion of female pharmacist in the profession grew steadily through the century.  By 1945 about 10 per cent of pharmacists were female.  This had grown to 18 per cent by 1959, and 36 per cent in 1984.

24,119 female pharmacists on Register in 2004
(52% of 46,384 in total)

Since 2001, there have been more women than men on the Register and their role in the profession is firmly established. No one questions their ability to practise as competently as their male colleagues, nor their fitness to assume the highest executive offices. Over the past 15 years, five of the Presidents of the Council of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society have been women.