Twentieth century attitudes

Suffragettes from The Chemist and Druggist, June 24th 1911

The issues surrounding female pharmacists have provoked strong reactions from both men and women, from the 1870s until the present day. Here are some insights from the first half of the twentieth century.


On Saturday June 17th 1911, more than 40,000 women took part in a march from Victoria Embankment, along Northumberland Avenue to Piccadilly and then to the Albert Hall where a mass meeting was held, to demonstrate for the right for women to have the vote. The Chemist and Druggist, June 24th 1911, included two photos of female pharmacists who took part in the two and a half hours' march.

Cuttings, stuck into the front and back covers of a British Pharmacopoeia 1914 found in a second hand book stall some years ago, provide an insight into one female pharmacist, Mrs J.T.(Lizzie) Hughes, of Penmaenmawr, North Wales. Some of the cuttings are in Welsh. The story from the cuttings is that, after Mrs Hughes lost her husband in 1914, she carried on his business, attended the Liverpool School of Pharmacy and qualified by passing the Society's Minor exam in 8 months. This was no small undertaking for a women in this period: as one cutting states, 'Every credit is due to her for her plucky resolve." Touchingly, the B.P. also has the list of successful Minor exam candidates stuck into it, and tucked into it, a telegram sent from Southampton Row in London to Hughes Chemist Penmaenmawr, simply stating 'Qualified, Lizzie'

"Where to settle!...The woman pharmacist has something else to weight besides expense: it is the question of her sex, and the fact that at present she is a pioneer in her profession, and must naturally turn to where she thinks an enterprising woman will be respected and her ability made use of rather than to a locality that appears very "Early Victorian."... The places to avoid are centres, such as cathedral towns, where anything new is looked upon with suspicion, and must stand the test of time before it can be trusted."

"The Ideal Neighbourhood for the Woman Pharmacist", E.L.B.Forster, The Pharmaceutical Journal, 12 August 1916

"It is easy to understand that men, and especially unemployed ex-Service men, in the drug trade should object to female competition, chiefly on the ground that competition tends to depress the wage standard...There is no more reason for excluding women from earning a livelihood in pharmacy than there is for excluding men who are less than 5 ft. 4 in. in height...let marriage be the gilding of a full life, not the end and object of an empty one. Even now the happiest marriages are those in which each partner works for the common home - a menage not unknown in pharmacy - and we are emboldened to hope that the problem of women in pharmacy may in the future be largely solved on these lines."

Letter from "A Free Woman", The Pharmaceutical Journal November 13th 1920.

What to wear?

"the idea of a practical woman wearing a 'long white drill coat' in the pharmacy is rather worse than absurd. What chemist is prepared to pay £7 10s (this is a real estimate) for one dozen such coats before commencing her duties, and 4s. to 6s. per week for laundry on coats only?...Wherein lies the necessity of distinguishing by dress the woman pharmacist from the "sales girl in the toilet department of a drug store"? Both women are earning their living in an honourable manner, and to some extent their duties coincide. Surely if the woman pharmacist is superior, she will show it by her manner and training without any special dress advertisement."

Letter to The Pharmaceutical Journal, Nellie Patterson, Herne Hill, 16 February 1915

Wartime pressures

The announcement of a meeting organised by the Pharmaceutical Society entitled 'The Defence of the Civil Population Against Gas' in December 1936 seems prescient in view of the Second World War. The Woman Pharmacist's Page in The British and Colonial Pharmacist, November 1936 urged women to attend: "This is a matter to which women in pharmacy should give special attention...The civil population in any war consists largely of women and children; the men, of course, are with the colours... All women pharmacists should attend the meeting on December 1 and learn all there is to know about defence against gas, in particular what steps are being taken to protect the civil population and what part women, with the specialist knowledge of the pharmacist, can play in any defence scheme."

During World War Two, the Ministry of Labour and National Service issued instructions that women pharmacists and dispensers were not to be called up. Miss Islip, NAWP's employment secretary asked that "married and retired women who could return to pharmacy during the present emergency should do so as soon as possible."

The Pharmaceutical Journal, 18 April 1942

A woman's place?

What qualities does a woman need in pharmacy?
"A physically sound and healthy body, a good average intelligence, orderly and methodical ways, a capacity for hard work, perseverance, and a pleasing manner, are of prime importance, for without these no success can be made of pharmacy... A good handwriting is an essential."

Women in Pharmacy, "Audacia et Industria"
The Pharmaceutical Journal 19 August 1916

"we must remember that to-day the public is deeply concerned with health and beauty and it is to the pharmacy that people and especially women turn for aid in this direction... I know that a well known store had a special advertisement of their boxes in the Christmas brochure. They are metal cases, fitted with empty bottles for lotions and boxes for powders and creams. The recipients of these will, of course, want the containers filled. I suggest that the woman chemist is the person best fitted to suggest what should be put in these bottles."

The British and Colonial Pharmacist, January 1935

'Pharmacista' who wrote The Woman Pharmacist's Page in The British and Colonial Pharmacist, decided to carry out her own research in May 1938, into the public attitude towards female pharmacists, by asking a housekeeper to give her impressions:
"Requiring something from the chemist, I entered a chemist's shop where I knew a lady assistant was employed... I think where women chemists are employed a notice should be put in the window, and this would attract the women shoppers who are sometimes a little sensitive about their personal requirements."

Miss F.M.Hervey, a Past President and former Employment Secretary of NAWP, spoke at a Conference of the Women's Employment Federation, about pharmacy as a career for women. She stressed the two most important characteristics that a girl who is interested in pharmacy should possess: "(1) she should be conscientious and not afraid of hard work and responsibility; (2) she should be good in scientific subjects. Pharmacy was work which called for good organizing powers, neat fingers, tidiness and method."

The British and Colonial Pharmacist October 1946

Chemists' Exhibition at Central Hall, Westminster:
"Perhaps the most fascinating exhibit from the woman's point of view were the synthetic resin sponges, which were hard when dry but became soft when placed in water. They were made in four sizes, bath, toilet, baby and cosmetic, and in attractive shades of pink, green, blue and yellow. These sponges can be sterilised - a property which would recommend them for hospital use."

The British and Colonial Pharmacist October 1948

Ladies pharmacy coat

Image above: The Ladies pharmacy coat. The costume is made of holland and is trimmed with sage-green collar, cuffs and belt - The Chemist and Druggist, July 29th 1916, p792