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An apothecary in the 15th century

Apothecary /əˈpɒθkəri/ is one term for a medical professional who formulates and dispenses materia medica to physicians, surgeons and patients. The modern pharmacist (also colloquially referred to as a chemist in British English) has taken over this role and in some languages and regions the word is still used to refer to a retail pharmacy or a pharmacist who owns one. The apothecaries' investigation of herbal and chemical ingredients was a precursor to the modern sciences of chemistry and pharmacology.[1]

In addition to dispensing medicines, the apothecary offered general medical advice and a range of services that are now performed by other specialist practitioners, such as surgeons and obstetricians.[2] Apothecary shops sold ingredients and the medicines they prepared wholesale to other medical practitioners, as well as dispensing them to patients.[3] In 1600s England, they also controlled the trade of tobacco which was imported as a medicine.[4]


Apothecary derives from the Ancient Greek word ἀποθήκη (apothḗkē, "a repository, storehouse") via Latin apotheca ("repository, storehouse, warehouse"), Medieval Latin apothecarius ("storekeeper"), and eventually Old French apotecaire.[5]

In some languages the word "apothecary" is still used for designating a pharmacist/chemist, such as German and Dutch (Apotheker)[6] and Luxembourgish (Apdikter).[7] Likewise, "pharmacy" translates as "apotek" and "apteekki" in the Scandinavian (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish),[8] and some Slavic languages such as Bosnian "apoteka", Serbian "апотека", Russian and Ukrainian "аптека" (pronounced "apteka").

Use of the term "apothecary" in the names of businesses varies with time and location. In some areas of the United States it has experienced a nostalgic revival and been used for a wide variety of businesses, while in other areas such as California its use is restricted to licensed pharmacies.[9]


French apothecary (15th century).

Apothecary, as a profession, could date back to 2600 BC to ancient Babylon, which provides one of the earliest records of the practice of the apothecary. Clay tablets were found with medical texts recording symptoms, the prescriptions, and the directions for compounding it.[10] The Papyrus Ebers from ancient Egypt, written around 1500 B.C., contain a collection of more than 800 prescriptions, or ancient recipes for the apothecaries of the time. It mentions over 700 different drugs.[10][11]

According to Sharif Kaf al-Ghazal,[12] and S. Hadzovic,[13] apothecary shops existed during the Middle Ages in Baghdad[12] by Islamic pharmacists in 754 during the Abbasid Caliphate, or Islamic Golden Age.[13] Apothecaries were also active in Islamic Spain by the 11th century.[14]

By the end of the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400) was mentioning an English apothecary in the Canterbury Tales, specifically "The Nun's Priest's Tale" as Pertelote speaks to Chauntecleer (lines 181–184):

... and for ye shal nat tarie,

Though in this toun is noon apothecarie,
I shal myself to herbes techen yow,
That shul been for youre hele and for youre prow.

In modern English, this can be transliterated as:

... and you should not linger,
Though in this town there is no apothecary,
I shall teach you about herbs myself,
That will be for your health and for your pride.

In Renaissance Italy, Italian Nuns became a prominent source for medicinal needs. At first they used their knowledge in non-curative uses in the convents to solidify the sanctity of religion among their sisters. As they progressed in skill they started to expand their field to create profit. This profit they used towards their charitable goals. Because of their eventual spread to urban society, these religious women gained "roles of public significance beyond the spiritual realm (Strocchia 627).[15] Later apothecaries led by nuns were spread across the Italian peninsula.

Early Italian Pharmacy, 17th century, Gift of Fisher Scientific International, Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections

From the 15th century to the 16th century, the apothecary gained the status of a skilled practitioner. In England, the apothecaries merited their own livery company, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, founded in 1617.[16][17] Its roots, however, go back much earlier to the Guild of Pepperers formed in London in 1180.[18]

Interior of an apothecary's shop. Illustration from Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time from 1893 by Frederick Litchfield (1850–1930)
The Lady Apothecary. Alfred Jacob Miller (between 1825 and 1870).[19] The Walters Art Museum.

However, there were ongoing tensions between apothecaries and other medical professions, as is illustrated by the experiences of Susan Reeve Lyon and other women apothecaries in 17th century London.[3] In 1865 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to be licensed to practise medicine in Britain by passing the examination of the Society of Apothecaries.[20] By the end of the 19th century, the medical professions had taken on their current institutional form, with defined roles for physicians and surgeons, and the role of the apothecary was more narrowly conceived, as that of pharmacist (dispensing chemist in British English).[21]

In German speaking countries, such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, pharmacies or chemist stores are still called apothecaries or in German Apotheken. The Apotheke ("store") is legally obligated to be run at all times by at least one Apotheker (male) or Apothekerin (female), who actually has an academic degree as a pharmacist —— in German Pharmazeut (male) or Pharmazeutin (female) — and has obtained the professional title Apotheker by either working in the field for numerous years — usually working in a pharmacy store — or taking additional exams. Thus a Pharmazeut is not always an Apotheker.[22] Magdalena Neff became the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Germany when she studied pharmacy at the Technical University of Kalsruhe and later passed the apothecary's examination in 1906.[23]

Apothecaries used their own measurement system, the apothecaries' system, to provide precise weighing of small quantities.[24] Apothecaries dispensed viles or poisons as well as medicines, and as is still the case, medicines could be either beneficial or harmful if inappropriately used. Protective methods to prevent accidental ingestion of poisons included the use of specially shaped containers for potentially poisonous substances such as laudanum.[25]


Many recipes included herbs, minerals, and pieces of animals (meats, fats, skins) that were ingested, made into paste for external use, or used as aromatherapy. Some of these are similar to natural remedies used today, including catnip,[26] chamomile, fennel, mint, garlic and witch hazel.[27] Many other ingredients used in the past such as urine, fecal matter, earwax, human fat, and saliva, are no longer used and are generally considered ineffective or unsanitary.[28]

Other mentions in creative literature[edit]

  • William Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet" : A poor apothecary sells Romeo an Elixir of Death with which Romeo commits suicide to be with the late Juliet.
  • William Shakespeare's play "King Lear": King Lear exclaims: "Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination."
  • William Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily" : The main character, Miss Emily Grierson, goes to an "apothecary" and buys arsenic, supposedly to kill a rat. Which turns out later to have been her "Yankee boyfriend", who had sought to cast her aside harshly.[29]
  • In the Warhammer 40k universe, Space Marines who practice battlefield medicine are known as Apothecaries.
  • In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the wizarding shops that sell ingredients for potions are known as apothecaries.
  • The Author Ingrid Noll wrote the bestseller German book "Die Apothekerin" which was translated to "The Pharmacist" in English.
  • The monk Cadfael in The Cadfael Chronicles written by the linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter under the name "Ellis Peters" is an apothecary, herbalist, and amateur detective.[30]

Noted apothecaries[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Awofeso, Niyi (2013). Organisational capacity building in health systems. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 9780415521796. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  2. ^ King, Helen (2007). Midwifery, obstetrics and the rise of gynaecology : the uses of a sixteenth-century compendium. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate. p. 80. ISBN 9780754653967. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Woolf, Judith S. (2009). "Women's Business: 17th-Century Female Pharmacists". Chemical Heritage Magazine. 27 (3): 20–25. 
  4. ^ Gately, Iain (2001). Tobacco : a cultural history of how an exotic plant seduced civilization (1st Grove Press paperback ed.). New York: Grove Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0802139603. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  5. ^ "apothecary". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  6. ^ Duden, Band 7, B.I.& F.A. Brockhaus AG, Mannheim 2001
  7. ^ "Apdikter". Lëtzebuerger Online Dictionnaire. Ministère de la Culture. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  8. ^ "apotek — Den Danske Ordbog". ordnet.dk. Retrieved 2016-05-24. 
  9. ^ Friedman, Nancy (September 15, 2014). "Going Medieval: The Revival of "Apothecary"". Visual Thesaurus. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Allen, Jr, Lloyd (2011). A History of Pharmaceutical Compounding (PDF). Secundum Artem, Volume 11 Number 3. 
  11. ^ American Botanical Council (1998). "A Pictorial History of Herbs in Medicine and Pharmacy". Herbalgram (42): 33–47. 
  12. ^ a b Sharif Kaf al-Ghazal, The valuable contributions of Al-Razi (Rhazes) in the history of pharmacy during the Middle Ages, Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine, Vol. 3 (6), October 2004, pp. 9–11.
  13. ^ a b Information taken from the abstract of Hadzović, S (1997). "Pharmacy and the great contribution of Arab-Islamic science to its development". Medicinski arhiv (in Croatian). 51 (1–2): 47–50. ISSN 0350-199X. OCLC 32564530. PMID 9324574. 
  14. ^ John Brian Harley, David Woodward (1992). The history of cartography. 2. Oxford University Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-226-31635-1 
  15. ^ Strocchia, Sharon T. (2011). "The Nun Apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: Marketing Medicines in the Convent". Renaissance Studies. 25 (5): 627–647. doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2011.00721.x. 
  16. ^ Barrett, C. R. B. (1905). The history of the Society of apothecaries of London. London: E. Stock. I shall endeavour to trace the history of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, from its incorporation as a separate body on December 6, 1617, down to the present day. 
  17. ^ Copeman, W. S. (2 December 1967). "The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London--1617-1967". Br Med J. 4 (5578): 540–541. doi:10.1136/bmj.4.5578.540. PMC 1749172Freely accessible. PMID 4863972. 
  18. ^ "Origins". The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London. 
  19. ^ "The Lady Apothecary". The Walters Art Museum. 
  20. ^ Annie G., Porritt (1919). "Reviewed Work: The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake. by Margaret Todd". Political Science Quarterly. 34 (1): 180. JSTOR 2141537. 
  21. ^ Liaw, ST; Peterson, G (May 2009). "Doctor and pharmacist - back to the apothecary!". Australian health review : a publication of the Australian Hospital Association. 33 (2): 268–78. doi:10.1071/ah090268. PMID 19563315. 
  22. ^ "German Pharmacy, Apotheke, vs Drogerie". Journey to Germany. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  23. ^ Beisswanger, Gabriele; Hahn, Gudrun; Seibert, Evelyn; Szász, Ildikó; Trischler, Christl (2001). Frauen in der Pharmazie: Die Geschichte eines Frauenberufs. Stuttgart: Deutscher Apotheker Verlag. 
  24. ^ Cazalet, Sylvain (2001). "Tables of weights and measures. Apothecaries' weight". HOMÉOPATHE INTERNATIONAL. 
  25. ^ Griffenhagen, George; Bogard, Mary (1999). History of drug containers and their labels. Madison, Wis.: American Inst. of the History of Pharmacy. p. 35. ISBN 0931292263. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  26. ^ Wilson, Robert Cumming (2010). Drugs and pharmacy in the life of Georgia, 1733-1959. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press. p. 166. ISBN 0820335568. Retrieved 13 December 2016. 
  27. ^ Allen, David E.; Hatfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal plants in folk tradition : an ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland (Or.) [etc.]: Timber press. ISBN 9780881926385. 
  28. ^ Douglas, Julianne. "Remedies and Recipes". Writing the Renaissance. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  29. ^ The story, with the word "apothecary" used, is abstracted by Janice L. Willms in New York University's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database—"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner.
  30. ^ Cranch, Robbie (1993). "Mystery in the Garden: Interview with Ellis Peters We used to make bottled medicine that we compounded specially, with ingredients like gentian, rosemary, horehound". Mother Earth Living (December/January). Retrieved 13 December 2016. 

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