Women Pharmacists in the 19th Century

Pharmacy premises in Wolsey Lane, Fleckney, Leicestershire This pharmacy belonged to Fanny Elizabeth Potter, the first female pharmacist to register with the Society

Women have always been involved in the production and administration of medicines.  However, in the early days of the Pharmaceutical Society the status of female pharmacists was unclear. The Society’s Council passed a resolution banning women from the school when Elizabeth Garrett (later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) attended lectures at the Society’s School of Pharmacy in the 1860s. Elizabeth became the first woman in England to qualify as a doctor.

The Pharmacy Act of 1868 required all practicing pharmacists to register with the Society and so 223 women joined the first compulsory register in 1869. They had been in business before 1st August 1868, but at the time, it wasn’t unusual for women to take over businesses established by their fathers or husbands, despite their limited opportunities for education.

After their inclusion on the 1869 Register, women started to take the Society’s exams alongside their male counterparts. Despite this, they were not eligible for prizes, or to work in the Society’s chemical laboratories. Fanny Elizabeth Deacon was the first woman to pass the Modified Exam, designed for practicing pharmacists, in 1869. The first woman to qualify as a Chemist and Druggist was Alice Vickery was, who passed the Society’s Minor exam five years later. Despite being able to work as pharmacists, women had no rights within the Society and therefore no role to play in the regulation of the profession.

Fanny Elizabeth Potter

The first woman registered with the Society

Portrait of Fanny Elizabeth Potter  In 1869 Fanny Elizabeth Potter registered with the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in February 1869, after passing the Modified exam.

In 1870, Fanny (Frances) Elizabeth Potter was the first woman to qualify for registration with the Pharmaceutical Society after the Pharmacy Act of 1868. She appeared on the Society’s register as a Chemist and Druggist that year, having qualified on 5th February 1869 by taking the Modified Exam.

Her first registered address was the same as her father, William Potter, who was also a pharmacist. They worked in Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire until Fanny married Abraham Deacon the minister of Fleckney Carmel Strict and Peculiar Chapel, in 1875. The next year, Fanny and her father moved to Fleckney and she began working as a pharmacist next-door to the chapel.

After Abraham’s death in 1911 their son Augustine, known as Gus, took over part of the pharmacy premises as a watchmaker, and the shop became known as Gus Deacon’s Chemist and Watch Repair Shop. Fanny remained listed at Fleckney until her death, aged 92, in 1930.

Alice Vickery

The first woman to qualify as a Chemist and Druggist

Alice Vickery. Image courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Creative Commons 1.0

When she passed the Society’s Minor exam on 18 June 1873 Alice Vickery was the first woman to qualify as a Chemist and Druggist. She was born in Devon in 1844 but had moved to London by 1861, where she began her medical career in 1869 at the Ladies' Medical College. 

She trained as a midwife, qualifying in 1873, and while at the college met Charles Drysdale, her companion and co-worker. Both objected to the institution of marriage, an unusual stance at the time.

Since no British medical schools admitted women, Alice went to France in 1873 to study medicine at the University of Paris, returning to London in 1877 to complete her training at the London Medical School for Women.

Alice spent her life supporting the rights of women. She gave frequent lectures promoting birth control as an essential element for the emancipation of women. She joined the National Society for Women's Suffrage, later moving on to the more militant Women's Social and Political Union, and then the non-violent Women's Freedom League.

Alice continued to support the rights of women, even after she had retired from practicing medicine. In 1923 she moved to Brighton to be near her elder son, becoming an active president of the Women's Freedom League local branch, and addressed a meeting only days before her death, from pneumonia, on 12 January 1929.