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

In addition to dispensing herbs and medicine, 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 seventeenth century 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 used to designate a pharmacist/chemist, such as German and Dutch Apotheker[citation needed] and Luxembourgish Apdikter.[6] Likewise, "pharmacy" translates as apotek in Danish[7], Norwegian[8][9] and Swedish, apteekki in Finnish, apoteka in Bosnian, апотека in Serbian, аптека in Russian, Bulgarian and Ukrainian, and apteka in Polish[10]. The word in Indonesian is apotek[11], which was borrowed from the Dutch apotheek[12]. In Yiddish the word is אַפּטייק apteyk.

Use of the term "apothecary" in the names of businesses varies with time and location. It is generally an americanism, though some areas of the United States use it to invoke an experience of nostalgic revival and it has been used for a wide variety of businesses, while in other areas such as California its use is restricted to licensed pharmacies.[13]

Apothecary, as a profession, could date back to 2600 BCE 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.[14]

The Papyrus Ebers from ancient Egypt, written around 1500 BCE, contain a collection of more than 800 prescriptions, or ancient recipes for the apothecaries of the time. It mentions over 700 different drugs.[14][15]

The Shen-nung pen ts'ao ching, a Chinese book on agriculture and medicinal plants (3rd century CE),[16][14][17] is considered a foundational material for Chinese medicine and herbalism and became an important source for Chinese apothecaries.[18] The book, which documented 365 treatments, had a focus on roots and grass. It had treatments which came from minerals, roots and grass, and animals.[16][17] Many of the mentioned drugs and their uses are still followed today. Ginseng’s use as a sexual stimulant and aid for erectile dysfunction stems from this book.[19] Ma huang, an herb first mentioned in the book, led to the introduction of the drug ephedrine into modern medicine.[16]

According to Sharif Kaf al-Ghazal,[20] and S. Hadzovic,[21] apothecary shops existed during the Middle Ages in Baghdad,[20] operated by Islamic pharmacists in 754 during the Abbasid Caliphate, or Islamic Golden Age.[21] Apothecaries were also active in Islamic Spain by the 11th century.[22]

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):

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

... 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).[23] Later apothecaries led by nuns were spread across the Italian peninsula.

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.[24][25] Its roots, however, go back much earlier to the Guild of Pepperers formed in London in 1180.[26]

Interior of an apothecary's shop. Illustration from from 1893 by Frederick Litchfield (1850–1930).
Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time

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] Often women (who were prohibited from entering medical school) became apothecaries which took away business from male physicians.[28] In 1865 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to be licensed to practice medicine in Britain by passing the examination of the Society of Apothecaries.[29] 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).[30]

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.[31] 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.[32]

Apothecaries used their own measurement system, the apothecaries' system, to provide precise weighing of small quantities.[33] Apothecaries dispensed vials of 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.[34]

Apothecary businesses were typically family-run, and wives or other women of the family worked alongside their husbands in the shops, learning the trade themselves. Women were still not allowed to train and be educated in universities so this allowed them a chance to be trained in medical knowledge and healing. Previously, women had some influence in other women's healthcare, such as serving as midwives and other feminine care in a setting that was not considered appropriate for males. Though physicians gave medical advice, they did not make medicine, so they typically sent their patients to particular independent apothecaries, who did also provide some medical advice in particular remedies and healing.

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,[35] chamomile, fennel, mint, garlic, and witch hazel.[36] 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.[37] Trial and error were the main source or finding successful remedies, as little was known about the chemistry of why certain treatments worked. For instance, it was known that drinking coffee could help cure headaches, but the existence and properties of caffeine itself was still a mystery.[38]