From Apothecary Shop to Independent Science: Celebrating National Pharmacist Day

The following blog was written by Curatorial Volunteer Mary Catherine Shea.

In honour of National Pharmacist Day, the following blog examines the scientific achievements of pharmacists and explores pharmacy’s winding journey from trade to profession.

The United States annually recognizes pharmacists’ contribution to patient healthcare, celebrating National Pharmacist Day, each January 12.  Pharmacists apply their extensive knowledge of the chemical composition of medicines to help patients manage disease and pain.  Pharmacists are represented internationally by the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) and by national organizations, such as the Canadian Pharmacists Association, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (UK) and the American Pharmacists Association (APhA).

Ancient Traditions, Ongoing Competition


Ancient Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern civilizations have compiled numerous texts that organize and outline the healing properties of native roots, herbs and plants. The earliest known example is India’s sixth century Sushruta Samhita.  Native peoples around the globe also have long histories of healing expertise and traditions, passed down orally through the generations.  The Iroquois of Stadacona treated Jacques Cartier’s explorers with a conifer tea, high in Vitamin C, effectively combatting the outbreak of scurvy and demonstrating knowledge about the medicinal value of plants.

A 15th century apothecary helps treat a poison victim. During the 12th century, the Apothecary guild replaced the Grocer’s as specialists in medicine.
Woodcut from Ortus Sanitatis, (Mainz 1491). Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, London.

Within Europe, the 12th century Apothecary guild specialized in the production and distribution of medicines until the emergence of chemists and druggists in the 1800s.  Apothecaries’ and physicians’ duties long overlapped, creating ongoing professional tensions.  For example, apothecaries were lauded for remaining within plague-ridden districts, but physicians complained that they infringed on their territory by performing surgery.  Apothecaries contested that physicians dispensed and compounded remedies without knowing of their properties and risks.  In 1240, Emperor Frederic II issued a decree to separate the physicians’ and apothecaries’ guilds.  Despite Emperor Frederic’s initiative, guild roles overlapped until advances in chemistry and medicine propelled change.

The 18th and 19th Century Apothecary Shop

Apothecary shops were prominent within medieval Europe, though the first North American shop only appeared in Philadelphia in the 1780s.  Early North American dispensaries served as multi-purpose commercial abodes where patrons browsed selections of cosmetics, books, teas, toiletries, perfumes and wax candles.  In pre-confederation Ontario, the role of pharmacy practitioner could equally fall to a qualified physician, a chemist or druggist with specialized apprenticeship training, or to a charlatan, seeking to profit from trade.  By the early 1800s, ‘chemist’ or ‘druggist’ became the accepted terms for North American specialists in the dispensation of drugs.  Apothecaries gradually lost their control over the distribution of medicines.

Patrons of E. B. Marston’s Drugstore in Kinston, North Carolina gather around the era’s ubiquitous soda fountain.
E. B. Marston’s Drugstore in Kinston, (ca 1915). North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Library

In the 1800s, apothecary shops were stocked with patent remedies, as well as prescription drugs.  Magazines were rife with advertisements for remedies claiming to cure everything from cancer to dyspepsia.  The first Canadian Proprietary or Patent Medicine Act of 1908 helped protect the public from charlatan practitioners as it prohibited unauthorized sales of hazardous drugs. During the Industrial era, several small scale pharmaceutical shops also evolved into today’s manufacturing companies.  Germany’s Bayer manufacturing company, for example, was responsible for first developing acetylsalicylic acid, or, Aspirin, in 1891.

Defining Pharmacy

Parke, Davis and Co. evolved from a corner drug store to become one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies.
Parke-Davis Lobelia Extract Bottle, (1917). Collection of the Museum of Health Care, #000001090

The advent of the Industrial age changed both the production of pharmaceuticals, and the role of practitioners.  In the mid-to-late 19th century, chemists and druggists lobbied to define their role within overall patient care, and the term ‘pharmacist’ first came into usage.  Ontario chemist, Edward Shuttleworth sought to define pharmacy as a separate practice from medical professions.

In 1867, Shuttleworth united with 18 chemists to form the Canadian Pharmaceutical Society, seeking national reform, educational standards, scientific advancement, and cross-country communication.  The Canadian Pharmaceutical Society successfully established the Pharmacy Act of Ontario in 1871, leading to the founding of the Ontario College of Pharmacy.  Ontario’s College of Pharmacy—today The Canadian Pharmacists Association—helped define pharmacy’s scope of responsibility. Shuttleworth’s lobbying work and Industrial-era scientific developments helped pharmacy transcend its status as a trade, as it was continually affirmed for its contributions to science and healthcare.

Selected Achievements in Pharmacy

4 000 BCE: Early Summeria appoints specialists in medicine.
1345: First apothecary shop opens in London, England.
1535-6: The Iroquois of Stadacona successfully cure Jacques Cartier’s explorers of scurvy.
1820: French chemists, Pelletier and Caventou first extract quinine from Cinchona bark, helping with the treatment of malaria.
1872: Oswald Schmiedeberg becomes a founder of modern pharmacology.
1891: Bayer begins to manufacture and distribute Aspirin.
1910: Paul Ehrlich and Dr Sahachiro Hata discover Salvarsan, the first drug to combat syphilis.
1921: Frederick Banting and Charles Best discover insulin for the treatment of diabetes.
1928: Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin.
1961: Ibuprofen is first synthesized by the Boots Pure Drug Company.

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