Celebrating women in pharmacy: a history

Image: Ada Francis Richardson, working in her pharmacy 

To mark International Women’s Day, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Museum has unveiled a new online exhibition celebrating the history of women in pharmacy.

The exhibition is part of our 180th year anniversary activities and begins in Victorian times by telling the stories of women who fought to become accepted as full members of RPS.

It reveals the struggles of early pioneers such as Rose Coombs Minshull, who came first out of 166 candidates when she passed the Society’s Preliminary Exam in 1873. Despite her obvious abilities, her application to study was rejected by the RPS Council.

Undeterred by this setback, Rose then passed the Minor exam with top marks and registered as a Chemist & Druggist in 1877. In 1879 she passed her Major exam and when the Council finally relented, became one of the first two women to be elected as members of the Society, alongside Isabella Clarke-Keer.

After this breakthrough the number of women pharmacists grew steadily and the exhibition highlights some of those who took roles in education or ran their own businesses, but for most their pay and career choices remained limited by their gender.

In the 20th century women began to take on senior roles within the RPS. Jean Kennedy Irvine was elected as the first women President in 1947 and others soon followed in her footsteps. The exhibition traces their history right up to the present. Today, over 60% of pharmacists are women.

RPS Chief Executive Paul Bennett said: “The inspiring stories highlighted in our new exhibition shed light on the women who helped create the profession we know today.

“The profession is rich in extraordinary pioneers, both past and present. There’s still more to be done to ensure all women in pharmacy achieve their full potential and we’re determined to help change this through our inclusion and diversity strategy for pharmacy. We’re also dedicating this month to shining a light the many and varied roles of women in the profession, to show there is much to aspire to.”

Browse the exhibition

We’re dedicating March to raising the profile of women in pharmacy. Listen to our Women in Science discussion with three amazing scientists from our Industrial Pharmacy Advisory Group.

We’ll be live streaming events on Women in Leadership, (10 March) Women in Technology (17 March) and Women Caring in Covid (24 March), which will be available to watch afterwards too. We’ll also be posting blogs and must-listen podcasts during the month. We’d like to profile more diverse women leaders, so if you’d like to get involved please email us [email protected]