The role of apothecaries changed in the UK in the mid 18thcentury. Until that time, an apothecary’s role was to prepare and sell medicines. They trained via an apprenticeship and no medical qualifications were required. They were not allowed to charge for medical advice, only for the preparations they sold.Much of an apothecary’s day was spent making medicines, dispensing medicines from the shop and, from the mid 18thcentury, visiting patients at home. In small towns and rural areas, the apothecary was the first port of call in illness. In 1790, Adam Smith described apothecaries as ‘the physicians of the poor at all times and of the rich when the danger is not very great’. Women were able to work in the occupation, assisting a husband or father.
The 1815 Apothecaries Act recognised the ‘general practise’ work done in the community by apothecaries and permitted them to charge fees for attending patients. It also introduced a five year apprenticeship, the trainee had to pass an examination set by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries [above]. The Society of Apothecaries was incorporated as a City Livery Company by royal charter from James I on 6 December 1617 in recognition of apothecaries’ specialist skills in compounding and dispensing medicines. The Society of Apothecaries is number 58 and the largest of the livery companies of the City of London. In addition to its traditional civic, ceremonial, social and charitable activities, the Society has been licensing doctors to practise medicine since 1815. The apothecaries acquired their hall in Blackfriars in 1632.
As more and more apothecaries established themselves as general practitioners, their role of dispensing medicines was taken over by the chemists and druggists; the latter were limited to their shops. The Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was founded in 1841 to represent the interests of chemists and druggists; later they would come to be called pharmacists. Some apothecaries also studied surgery for the Member of the Royal College of Surgeons qualification; they called themselves ‘surgeon-apothecaries’. For apothecaries, chemists and druggists, it was essential to build a good local reputation in order to attract clientele.
If you are checking census records for a relative who was a medical professional, it was common for the qualification to be quoted; perhaps apothecary, surgeon-apothecary, or general practitioner. If your relative kept an apothecary’s shop, they may be listed in a trade directory. Check the English and Welsh listings at the University of Leicester’s online Special Collections archive, including local gazeteers and Kelly’s directories. For Scottish Post Office directories, go to the National Library of Scotland. You may also find trade listings, advertisements, obituaries and news stories relating to your apothecary relative in local newspapers, so check the British Newspaper Archive. If your relative was working as a GP, check the Medical Directory [published from 1846] and the Medical Register [from 1859]; available at large city libraries and specialist medical archives such as the Wellcome Library.
The archive at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries is not permanently staffed, so it is necessary to apply in advance. Its collection is made up of paintings, silverware, furniture and a range of pharmaceutical, medical and other artefacts which have associations with the Society and its work. Microfilm copies exist for many of the major series of the Society’s pre-20th-century records.Visit the Chelsea Physic Garden [above] which was established in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries beside the River Thames in order to grow medicinal plants. Today it contains a living collection of around 5,000 different edible, useful and medicinal plants.
If you’re searching for relatives and want to search online safely try the Lost Cousins website, which matches you with other people researching the same ancestors. It’s worth signing up for the Lost Cousins newsletter too.
This post is inspired by an article in the June 2018 issue of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine.
Don’t know where to start investigating your own family history? Try this:-
‘Who Do You Think You Are? The Genealogy Handbook’ by Dan Waddell [UK: BBC Books]
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Was your relative an apothecary? @wdytyamagazine #familyhistory https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3sE via @SandraDanby