18th-Century Apothecaries

This blog post is dedicated to the digital exhibition on Apothecaries from Harvard University (https://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/exhibits/show/apothecary-jars/sequence).

Apothecaries were a branch of the tripartite medical system of apothecary-surgeon-physician which arose in Europe in the early-modern period. Well established as a profession by the seventeenth century, the apothecaries were chemists, mixing and selling their own medicines. They sold drugs from a fixed shopfront, catering to other medical practitioners, such as surgeons, but also to lay customers walking in from the street. Their daily tasks- as distinct from those of a barber-surgeon or physician whose primary duties during this era involved related diagnosis and treatment- were thus defined by a focus on retail (sales to the public without performing other clinical roles). Their shops were designed to attract the customer, and they stored their wares in elaborately decorated jars which looked beautiful in store. Skill in chemistry was an important part of the apothecary’s identity, and these jars- which contained the ingredients used to manufacture medicines- leant prestige to their craft.

Engraving by C Luyken, 1695. Wellcome Collection.

These practices were broadly comparable across Western and Northern Europe at this time, but in colonial North America medical treatment was patchier, and the distinction between different types of medical practitioners was looser. Missionaries or settlers who were pharmacists at home brought their craft with them, but they were relatively few and far between. Some colonies lacked apothecaries entirely, and physicians often dispensed their own drugs. Medicine was also often practiced by lay people, such as churchmen and governors, or housewives.

In France, apothecaries were regulated and licensed under the College of Pharmacy (Collège de Pharmacie), therefore developing into the modern day “pharmacist”. The College of Pharmacy had been set up as an administrative and educational body in 1777, and after the Revolution these functions were continued under the new government alongside its additional role in licensing. French apothecaries remained specialists in the manufacture, dispensing, and sale of medicines, rather than patient treatment. However, some did also offer health advice, and advise on which drugs a patient might require. The high level of professionalisation amongst the pharmaceutical community encouraged scientific experimentation, and French pharmacists of this period were instrumental in the progress of chemistry as a science.

French Pharmacy of the 18th C. Wellcome Collection circa 1700.

Apothecaries existed in Colonial America (as a profession defined by the possession of a shop purely devoted to the sale of drugs), but they also practiced patient care like a physician might, and sold toiletries like a shopkeeper. There was little to no regulation in practice, and there was no expectation or requirement that the drugseller be educated. Unlike in Britain and France, the medical practitioner was free to practice which parts of the profession he chose, and to call himself what he liked.

Colonial Pharmacy. Etching by H. Heath, 1825

In the photos below you’ll see jars bearing the Latin inscription of their medicinal contents. Apothecaries would have learned about these medicines during their training and used materia medica (handbooks of drugs and their therapeutic properties) to discover more about the illnesses they were used to treat. This glossary can help you learn more about the terminology (http://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/files/original/f05a35632f5a5c46a4321df04e2964f4.pdf).


Jars of “Art and Mystery” https://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/exhibits/show/apothecary-jars


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