From Potions to Pills: a short history of the apothecary

Before the rise of modern medicine, how did people get better when they were sick? If you were to travel back in time and step foot in the 17th century, medicine would look very different.

While apothecaries had been around since the middle ages, they were originally part of the grocery business. Their main products included many herbs and spices but we definitely wouldn’t group our supermarkets and doctors in the same way today!

The rise of the apothecary

In England, in 1617, the Society for Apothecaries was established, which broke away from the Grocers’ Company. This meant that apothecaries had a lot more freedom and could sell pretty much whatever they wanted, which ultimately led to the rise of quack medicine…

Quack Medicine
The word ‘quack’ comes from the Dutch word ‘quacksalver’ which was a term for somebody who boasted about his ‘salves’, more commonly known as ointments. A quack is regarded as someone who sells medicine for treatment while knowing it will not help the person.

After apothecaries were recognised publicly by King James I in 1617, they gained huge popularity and were used by many notable people of the time. They had strange concoctions like oil of swallows and syrup of serpents – safe to say we probably wouldn’t know what they were handing us if we walked into their shop!

Their theories were based on the supernatural and superstitious and they practiced medieval medicine which is best known for its theory of humours.

Humoral Theory
This was an old theory that believed there were four humours which existed as liquids within the body. These were blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The theory worked on the foundation of balance – an imbalance of the four humours indicated disease.

There’s lots of evidence of this too, take a look at this excerpt from the well-known diarist of the time, Samuel Pepys:

Many people back then believed that their illness could be sweated out or drained through the act of bloodletting – which could involve leeches sucking your blood! Pepys in his diary entry is saying that he doesn’t quite know why he is ill, but it might be due to lots of gherkins he’s been eating… his Apothecary, Mr. Battersby is advising him to sweat out the imbalance in his humours.

Strange theories meant even stranger treatments

We have about 600 English Delftware drug jars like the one you can see here. If you’d walked into an apothecary in the 17th century, these jars with their ornate designs and Latin inscriptions would have lined the shelves. The image you can see is a drug jar that would have held Oil of Earthworms which was highly recommended for painful joints. It was made by boiling the earthworms in olive oil and rubbing it on the affected area. The oil would have helped but the worms did absolutely nothing.


Goodbye humours, hello modern medicine!

Apothecaries were at their most popular throughout the 1700s but by the turn of the century, they were starting to be outnumbered by Victorian chemists.  It is with the 20th century that we see the emergence of the modern pharmacy. While it’s easy to see how the pharmacy is a direct progression from the apothecary, the call for more regulation and the phasing out of medieval medical practices and remedies signalled the dawn of the medicine we see today – thank god we’re not still rubbing earthworms on our skin!

You’ll be able to see our historic collection of delftware jars and learn more about this topic in our Apothecary Shop when we reopen!