The Founding of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

LDRPS: PBB1 This portrait of Jacob Bell (1810-1859) was painted by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, just three days before Bells death at the age of just 49.

Many medical professional bodies felt that chemists and druggists were untrained and unregulated, and the profession urgently needed to make their position in the medical landscape more secure. In 1841 a Medical Reform Bill was proposed, which set out to prevent chemists and druggists from dispensing medicines unless medically qualified – removing the need for a separate pharmacy profession.

A new professional body was needed for the chemists and druggists – one that would campaign on their behalf and protect their interests. So, on the 10 February 1841 Jacob Bell, a respected chemist, encouraged other London-based chemists and druggists to meet to discuss the impact of the Bill.

After their campaign against the Reform Bill was successful, the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was formed on 15 April 1841 at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand in London. William Allen proposed the motion, which was seconded by Jacob Bell's father, John Bell. Allen was then voted to be the first President of the Society.

But this was just the beginning. In order to claim to represent the profession the Society had to have a substantial membership, so Bell wrote to chemists and druggists across England, Scotland and Wales encouraging them to join. 

The Founding Members of the Society

LDRPS: PBA1 William Allen was the first President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. As a Quaker he was a prominent anti-slavery campaigner and friends with William Wilberforce.

The first Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had 40 members, and this group was responsible for creating the structure of the Society.

Key members included:

  • Jacob Bell - heir to his father John Bell’s successful pharmacy, serving as his apprentice in his Oxford Street shop, it was there he began networking with other chemists and druggists. Passionate about the founding of a professional organisation, he spent much of his time and money bringing the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain into existence and ensuring its success.
  • William Allen (1770-1843) - the Pharmaceutical Society’s first president. Born in Spitalfields in 1770, his father was a silk merchant, but Allen’s interest in chemistry led him to take up an apprenticeship with Joseph Gurney Bevan who ran a pharmacy. Allen eventually took over this pharmacy and partnered with Daniel Hanbury to form Allen and Hanburys.
  • Theophilus Redwood (1806-1892) - apprenticed in Cardiff with his brother-in-law, Charles Vachell, a surgeon apothecary, Redwood’s interest in chemistry led him to become Professor of Pharmacy at the Society’s School. He role also became the curator of the museum, the Society’s librarian and sub-editor of the Pharmaceutical Journal.
  • Robert Adolph Farmar (d1860) and George Walter Smith (d1860) - were made honorary secretary at the founding of the society. Farmar’s home at 40 Westminster Road was the site of the first meeting to discuss the affects of the potential Medical Reform Bill. Smith took over the role in full in 1842, with a salary of £150 per annum. He was known ‘industry zeal and ability’ by his former employers at Baiss Brothers and Co.

The Society gets a Royal Charter

The beautifully decorated Royal Charter, with its wax seal. This gave the Society government support, securing its place to represent the profession

The Society’s Royal Charter, awarded in 1843, gave it recognition from government, which was needed if it was to be seen as a profession rather than a trade. To further increase its standing as a profession, the Society focused on education, aiming at “advancing chemistry and pharmacy and promoting a uniform system of education [for] the protection of those who carry on the business of chemists and druggists.”

In order to function as a professional body, the Society needed members and it needed income. In the early years much of its membership came from London, and Jacob Bell worked hard to encourage chemists and druggists from all over the country to join and be represented. He published 2,000 copies of his pamphlet Observations addressed to the Chemists and Druggists of Great Britain on the Pharmaceutical Society, aimed at those outside the capital.

In September 1841, just five months after its foundation, the Society had 23 honorary members, 665 full members and 263 non-voting associate members.

Laws and Legislation

The 1852 Act brought about by the newly formed Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was the first piece of pharmacy legislation developed in its 180-year history.

The profession now had a clearer mandate to advocate for change and reform through legislation. In 1852 a Pharmacy Bill established a register of pharmaceutical chemists for the first time, but this didn’t go far enough for many members because the register was voluntary, and not linked to a compulsory system of education.

The Society gained significantly more power to regulate the profession in the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which meant that pharmacists who wanted to dispense poisons had to join the Society’s register; which meant passing their national exams. The Act regulated pharmacy education and access to medicines, two of the Society’s main aims.

In 1880, following a legal case resulting from the wording of the 1868 Act, the Law Lords agreed that companies as well as ‘persons’ could operate pharmacy businesses. As a result, chain pharmacies began to appear, and by 1900 Jesse Boot had a chain of 250 branches. By 1908 the Society sought to limit the extent to which large chains of pharmacies were run by unqualified businessmen, and the 1908 Poisons and Pharmacy Act ensured that a qualified pharmacy superintendent was required to be on their board of directors.