A vote by contractors giving the go ahead to changes to the PSNC and LPCs, includes a decision to phase out the use of the phrase ‘chemist’. Here we look at the many different titles that have been used in the past within the profession, starting with their origins in the apotheca.

One of the earliest words to describe early pharmacists in the UK was ‘apothecary’, which can be traced to the Latin word apotheca, a place where wine, spices and herbs were stored. During the thirteenth century it came into use in the UK to describe a person who kept and sold these items.

In medieval London, pharmacy was not a distinct trade, but controlled by the Company of Grocers, a guild that regulated the selling of spices, meat, food and drink.

The apothecaries split from the Company of Grocers in 1617 and became chartered in London as the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries – which still exists today. As well as being responsible for regulating the sale and manufacture of medicines, the new society had powers to inspect medicines, and you could only be called an apothecary after a seven-year apprenticeship.

Although the term chemist is now often used interchangeably with pharmacist, references to chemists in historical documents sometimes referred to those involved with the study of the science of pure chemistry rather than pharmacy. Between the 1500s and 1700s, the distinctions between alchemy and medicinal chemistry were blurred.

In 1704, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries won the Rose Case against the Royal College of Physicians, allowing apothecaries to prescribe medicines as well as dispense them, making them closer to modern general practitioners than pharmacists as we know them today.

By doing this, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries left a gap in the market and new chemists and druggists began to open premises in urban high streets, mixing and dispensing chemicals and medicines, as well as selling tobacco, alcohol, cosmetics and food. Unlike the apothecaries, the chemists and druggists were unregulated.

From alchemist to chemist

The word chemist, from ‘alchemist’, dates to around 1559. Chemist and druggist was a term first used to describe both chemical and drug merchants and practitioners of the emerging profession of pharmacy from the late 1700s. Chemist is reported to have replaced the word ‘druggist’ which, although still used in the United States and Scotland, was replaced by chemist in England in around 1750. Non-professional trained dispensers were also employed by doctors and pharmacists, and in institutions such as hospitals, asylums, workhouses, prisons and barracks.

In 1815, the introduction of the Apothecaries Act would have required all practicing apothecaries to hold a licence, so that the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries could control the chemists and druggists. The Bill required them to either become an apothecary or cease trading in medicines, but the chemists and druggists campaigned against the Bill and won.

Pharmacie and Φαρμακεία

The word pharmacist was not recorded in the 1830s in England, from the Greek Φαρμακεία, although pharmacie had been used in England since the 1500s.

The term pharmaceutical chemist dates from the 1700s, often referring to advocates of the French school of chemical-based therapeutics. By the mid-1800s, when it was adopted by the new Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, founded in 1841, the term 'pharmaceutical chemist' was being more widely applied to those interested in organic chemistry and in the skilled compounding of drugs.

In 1852, the Pharmacy Act established a register of pharmaceutical chemists, restricted to those who had taken the Pharmaceutical Society’s exams.

Under the 1868 Pharmacy Act, the terms chemist and druggist were used by the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain to denote those who had passed its minor examination, meeting the minimum requirement to register as a pharmacist. The Major exam would allow an individual to practice as a pharmaceutical scientist.

Commercial chemical and drug merchants, sometimes called druggists, not involved with the dispensing or the sale of scheduled poisons, were not required to register with the Society and continued to trade after 1868.

In 1880, following a legal case resulting from the wording of the 1868 Act, the Law Lords agreed that companies as well as ‘persons’ could operate pharmacy businesses. As a result, chain pharmacies began to appear, and by 1900 Jesse Boot had a chain of 250 branches.

In 1953 the chemist and druggist qualification was phased out, and all Society members were given the title of pharmacist.

Sources: Merriam-Webster; History of English by Dan McIntyre; the Royal Pharmaceutical Society; the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries; Collins English Dictionary; A History of Pharmacy in Great Britain by Dr Stuart Anderson; the British Society for the History of Pharmacy