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Definition: apothecary from Collins English Dictionary

n pl -caries

1 an archaic word for pharmacist

2 law a chemist licensed by the Society of Apothecaries of London to prescribe, prepare, and sell drugs

[C14: from Old French apotecaire, from Late Latin apothēcārius warehouseman, from apothēca, from Greek apothēkē storehouse]

Summary Article: Apothecaries
from Encyclopedia of the Black Death

Apothecaries were the druggists or pharmacists of the later medieval and early modern world. The name is derived from Greek apotheke, a storehouse. Greeks pioneered the literature on medical botany and the development of such drugs as theriac, but the profession of apothecary emerged first in the Islamic world during the early ninth century. Two centuries later, the scholar Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni described the apothecary as one who possesses the finest drugs and who prepares them according to the physician's order. These might be individual materials (simples) or compounds containing a variety of organic and inorganic ingredients. In the Islamic world, apothecaries operated shops or worked in hospitals and palaces. Given their wide trading networks, Muslim merchants greatly expanded the materia medica of the Greeks. As apothecaries developed, so did the apparatus of state oversight. Muhtasibs held the office of hisba, which had local control over food shops, bazaars, apothecaries, and medical practitioners in general. They inspected weights, measures, and quality of merchandise sold.

The Latin West borrowed the apothecary and much of his pharmacopoeia, or catalogue of simples and compounds. By the Black Death, these specialists had shops across Europe. When organized, they were originally in guilds with such similar tradesmen as spice merchants, chandlers, painters, or grocers. They followed physicians and surgeons in gaining organizations of their own over time, but they were generally licensed and inspected by boards of local physicians. Valencia's formed a guild in 1441, and Venetian apothecaries formed the Collegio degli speziali in 1565 with 71 members, growing to 85 members in 1569—including five women—and more than 100 by 1600. London's apothecaries belonged to the Grocers’ Company until 1617, when they formed the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries; they remained unable to prescribe medicines until early in the 18th century. In France, apothecary colleges or guilds emerged in the 1570s, along with requirements for Latin literacy, previously reserved for university-educated physicians. In the 1590s, Seville's druggists underwent apprenticeship, were tested and licensed by the protomedico, had to know Latin, had at least 500 ducats capital to open a shop, and accepted regular inspections by two city councilors, a physician, and a nonlocal apothecary. Some cities specified which medical manuals had to be present, and most required the keeping of detailed records.

When plague struck, apothecaries worked with physicians and empirics to provide clients with what they believed to be effective prophylactics, or remedies. While the physician might view the patient through a window rather than at bedside, the apothecary would minister the prescribed treatment. Given the spike in demand for medical service, apothecaries often visited sufferers and delivered appropriate medicines on their own. High demand also meant that supplies ran low, forcing apothecaries to suggest substitutions. Given the era's Galenic medical orthodoxy, the most common bodily response sought by physicians and apothecaries alike was purgation of tainted humors through one or more orifice. Inventories of 17th-century Norwich apothecary shops confirm that the majority of drugs were purgatives.

In Europe, apothecaries were entrepreneurs who supplied institutions as well as individuals. During epidemics, plague hospitals and pest houses required drugs, as did houses of those shut in by authorities. Officials usually assigned apothecaries to keep such places supplied, a task that also brought them into direct contact with the sick and dying. Before London's Great Plague (1665–1666), the city had about 475 apothecaries who oversaw some 875 apprentices; 275 remained after the Great Plague to serve Londoners, of whom 50 died leaving wills.

Street scene with interior view of an apothecary's shop; also miniatures depicting heliotherapy and balneology, a cupping procedure, bloodletting, and surgery on a patient's chest.

(Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

See also: Armenian Bole; Bezoar Stones; Bimaristans; Charlatans and Quacks; Humoral Theory; Narwhal/Unicorn Horn Powder; Poisoning and Plague Spreading; Prophylaxes; Purgatives; Remedies, External; Remedies, Internal; Syrups and Electuaries; Theriac and Mithridatum; Tobacco.

  • Brévart, Francis B.Between Medicine, Magic, and Religion: Wonder Drugs in German Medico-Pharmaceutical Treatises for the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries.” Speculum 83 (2008): 1-57.
  • Curth, Louise Hill. From Physick to Pharmacology: Five Hundred Years of British Drug Retailing. Ashgate Aldershot UK, 2006.
  • Pormann, Peter E.; Emilie Savage-Smith. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Georgetown University Press Washington, DC, 2007.
  • Stengaard, M. Kruse.Drug Therapy in the Official Danish Plague Instructions, 1619-1709.” Pharmacy in History 44 (2002): 95-104.
  • Copyright 2012 by Joseph P. Byrne

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