“O true Apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.” Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Apothecaries have existed in every culture through the ages. Thousands of years of herbal knowledge and experimentation aided the healers within the society. In most instances those who provided medicinal expertise were honored and recognized as essential. Unfortunately this hasn’t always been the case.

In Pride and Prejudice the apothecary Mr. Jones is called to aid the ill Jane Bennet. Austen’s low opinion of country apothecaries shone through when she wrote that “no country advice could be of any service” followed by Mr. Jones diagnosing Jane’s violent cold “as might be supposed” and the advice to “return to bed” and promise for “some draughts” not particularly wow-inducing. In the late 1700s this attitude was probably typical.

Thankfully change was coming. Here’s the history!

Civil War doctor’s apothecary chest


In England, specifically London, the apothecary was originally part of the Grocers Guild: those folks who were in charge of licensing all merchants who sold edible-related goods. Basically anyone could obtain a license to set up a shop if they paid the fees. Some chose to sell pharmaceutical concoctions without taking the job of medicinals seriously. These merchants were oft referred to as “quacks” because they made wild claims of healing, even going so far as to refer to themselves as “doctors”. Legitimate apothecaries who studied and performed their profession honorably were lumped in with the quacks. Additionally, being part of the tradesman class meant they could never be taken seriously as a medical professional.

Via a series of steps the apothecaries would change not only their place as a vital part of the medical system, but the entire practice of medical care in England.

First was in 1617 when they were granted a royal charter by King James I. This allowed them to break from the Grocers Guild to become an autonomous group: The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries.

Second, in 1673 they founded the Chelsea Physick Garden in London. This immense garden not only once contained Europe’s richest collection of exotic healing plants from around the world, it was also a place of shared learning and experimentation. Today the Chelsea Physic Garden is much smaller than previous and is open to the public.



Step three in the apothecary strive for legitimacy was a landmark case against the Royal College of Physicians in 1704. Parliament ruled for the apothecaries in London, granting them the right to not only dispense medications but also to prescribe based on diagnosing a patient’s symptoms. The reality was that out of necessity apothecaries, often working alongside surgeons, had been doing this anyway. Winning this case, however, was huge because it legalized the practice, giving them the prestige they wanted.

Problems persisted, namely: 1) no standards of practice existed, 2) medications were unregulated, and 3) nothing was mass produced. From a certain perspective this was a benefit since the serious apothecary was also a chemist and researcher whose duty was to improve health and healing through drugs. Being able to freely experiment was a boon. The negative was the proliferation of the aforementioned quacks, an image that continued to affect all apothecaries.

Death and the Apothecary, or The Quack Doctor by Thomas Rowlandson, early 1800


With reform in mind, the Society of Apothecaries pushed further, and in 1815 The Apothecaries Act was passed by Parliament. This act established a professional system of strict education, examination, and registration of not only ALL apothecaries in London but throughout ALL of the UK! This sweeping control was unprecedented, and a significant, radical shift toward the regulated medical care of modern day England. It also broadened their role from mere drug-dispensers to “general practitioners” who could diagnose and treat the sick completely independent of a physician with exacting standards and proven education behind them.

Thank you Mr. Apothecary!




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