In the Beginning

The Apothecaries

LDRPS: 2015.9.1, 18th or 19th century. This taxidermy Nile Crocodile would have been on display in an apothecary shop. Crocodiles or alligators were a symbol of pharmacy, although it is not clear why. Some say it is because they look like dragons, others because they were exotic, like the medicines kept by the apothecary

Pharmacy has a long history, with remedies ranging from opium to peppermint used across the world for thousands of years. In medieval London, pharmacy was not a distinct trade, but controlled by the Company of Grocers, a guild that regulated the selling of spices, meat, food and drink.

As the city developed, so too did the manufacture and dispensing of medicines. The apothecaries, who manufactured and sold drugs, grew keen to break away from their guild, so they could take responsibility for the drugs they produced and ensure these were not adulterated.

The apothecaries split from the Company of Grocers in 1617 and became chartered in London as the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. As well as being responsible for regulating the sale and manufacture of medicines, the new society now had powers to inspect medicines, and you could only be called an apothecary after a seven-year apprenticeship.

In 1704 the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries won the Rose Case against the Royal College of Physicians, allowing apothecaries to prescribe medicines as well as dispense them, making them closer to modern general practitioners than pharmacists as we know them today.


The rise of the Chemists and Druggists

LDRPS: SZ3086, 1953. This black and white photograph shows the exterior of H.B Wyllie, a chemist and druggist in Edinburgh. The business was established in 1797

A new pharmacy trade emerged in the eighteenth century, as the industrial revolution began.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries had left a gap in the market by moving into the role of general practitioner, and new chemists and druggists began to spring up in urban areas. They would typically own premises on the high street, where they mixed and dispensed chemicals and medicines, as well as selling tobacco, alcohol, cosmetics and food.

Unlike the apothecaries, the chemists and druggists were entirely unregulated, and without a national body to represent them, there was little sense of a pharmacy profession.

It was a competitive market, and chemists and druggists focused on the demands of their customers. Many specialised in different products, from chemicals for photography to developing matches - the famous Worcestershire Sauce of John Lea (1791-1882) and William Perrin (1793-1867) become so popular they gave up pharmacy to focus on its production.

In 1815, the introduction of the Apothecaries Act would have required all practicing apothecaries to hold a licence, so that the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries could control the chemists and druggists. The Bill required them to either become an apothecary or cease trading in medicines, but the chemists and druggists campaigned against the Bill and won.

However, this campaign had made it clear that the new chemists and druggists needed to protect their interests by joining together.