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A public dispensary, charitable dispensary or free dispensary gives advice and medicines free-of-charge, or for a small charge.
Examples of pre-20th century dispensaries for patients who could not pay a doctor's usual fee include:
- General Dispensary, London, England, founded 1770, also known as the Aldersgate Dispensary (received royal charter in 1844 to become Royal General Dispensary)
- Public Dispensary of Edinburgh, Scotland, founded 1776 (received royal charter in 1818 to become Royal Public Dispensary of Edinburgh)
- Metropolitan Dispensary and Charitable Fund, London, England, founded 1779
- Finsbury Dispensary, London, England, founded 1780
- Carey Street Public Dispensary, London, England, founded 1783
- Bloomsbury Dispensary, London, England, founded 1801
- Public dispensary, Falmouth, Cornwall, founded 1807
- Dispensary for Chinese at Macau, founded in 1820 by the Scottish missionary Robert Morrison and John Livingstone, a surgeon with the East India Company
- Leeds Public Dispensary, England, founded 1824
- Sydney Dispensary, Australia, founded 1826
- City of London and East London Dispensary, England, founded 1849
- Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, United States, founded 1855
- St. Mary's Dispensary for Women, London, England, founded 1866
- Edinburgh Provident Dispensary for Women and Children, Scotland, founded 1878
- Toronto Western Hospital, Canada, founded 1895
Provident dispensary 
In the 19th and early 20th centuries a provident dispensary was a clinic offering medical care to people who made a small weekly payment as a kind of medical insurance. If and when they became ill they were entitled to out-patient treatment at the dispensary.
In the 19th century it was not unusual in the United Kingdom to combine the subscription (provident) arrangement with charitable provision.
One of the earlier English cities to have a provident dispensary was Coventry (dispensary opened in 1830) where, in the 1840s, members subscribed one penny a week for adults and a halfpenny a week for each of their children. This was seen as a suitable arrangement for working-class people who wanted to be provident and self-reliant, avoiding charitable treatment offered to 'paupers', but with no hope of paying the fees charged to wealthier people. A provident dispensary needed a few hundred 'club' members to pay for one doctor. Some dispensaries had extra funding from philanthropists, and some arranged for hospital specialists to see dispensary patients at reduced fees. Doctors at a few provident dispensaries, in London for example, would visit patients at home.
A provident dispensary was opened in Buffalo, New York in the second half of the 19th century.
In some places the same need might be met by friendly societies organised by the members themselves. Provident dispensaries, on the other hand, were usually set up by prosperous well-wishers and/or by a doctor, as Sophia Jex-Blake did in Edinburgh, with support from a committee.
- Chambers' Information for the People (1842)
- John Weale, The Pictorial Handbook of London (1854)
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