For the 2014 Malayalam film, see Apothecary (film).
An apotheckary in the 15th century

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

In addition to dispensing medicines, the apothecary offered general medical advice and a range of services that are now performed by other specialist practitioners, such as surgeons and obstetricians. Apothecaries often operated through a retail shop which, in addition to ingredients for medicines, sold tobacco and patent medicines.


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.[1]

In some languages the word "apothecary" is still used for designating a pharmacist/chemist, such as German and Dutch (Apotheker)[2] and Luxembourgish (Apdikter).[3]

In some regions of the United States, especially northeastern cities such as Philadelphia and Boston, many independent pharmacies have the word "apothecary" in the name of the business.[4] Likewise, "pharmacy" translates as "apotek" in the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish).[5]


French apothecary (15th century).
Interior of an apothecary's shop. Illustration from Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time from 1893 by Frederick Litchfield (1850–1930)
The Lady Apothecary. Alfred Jacob Miller (between 1825 and 1870).[6] The Walters Art Museum.

Apothecary, as a profession, could date back to 2600 BC 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.[7] The Papyrus Ebers from ancient Egypt, written around 1500 B.C., contain a collection of more than 800 prescriptions, or ancient recipes for the apothecaries of the time. It mentions over 700 different drugs.[7][8]

According to Sharif Kaf al-Ghazal,[9] and S. Hadzovic,[10] apothecary shops existed during the Middle Ages in Baghdad[9] by Islamic pharmacists in 754 during the Abbasid Caliphate, or Islamic Golden Age.[10] Apothecaries were also active in Islamic Spain by the 11th century.[11]

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):

... and for ye shal nat tarie,

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

In modern English, this can be transliterated as:

... 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.

From the 15th century to the 16th century, the apothecary gained the status of a skilled practitioner, but 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).

In England, the apothecaries merited their own livery company, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, founded in 1617. Its roots, however, go back much earlier to the Guild of Pepperers formed in London in 1180.[12] Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain when she passed the Society's examination in 1865.

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

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 exames. Thus a Pharmazeut is not always an Apotheker. 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.

Apothecaries used their own measurement system, the apothecaries' system, to provide precise weighing of small quantities. Apothecaries also were known to accept special requests for viles and poisons.


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, chamomile, fennel, mint, garlic and witch hazel. [14] However, many others 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. [15]

Other mentions in creative literature

Noted apothecaries

See also


  1. "apothecary". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. Duden, Band 7, B.I.& F.A. Brockhaus AG, Mannheim 2001
  3. .Luxembourg Online Dictionary by the Ministry of Culture.
  4. Examples of "apothecaries" in Philadelphia apothecary https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=philadelphia apothecary Check |url= value (help). Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. "apotek — Den Danske Ordbog". ordnet.dk. Retrieved 2016-05-24.
  6. "The Lady Apothecary". The Walters Art Museum.
  7. 1 2 Allen, Jr, Lloyd. A History of Pharmaceutical Compounding. Secundum Artem, Volume 11 Number 3.
  8. American Botanical Council (1998). "A Pictorial History of Herbs in Medicine and Pharmacy". Herbalgram (42): 33–47.
  9. 1 2 Sharif Kaf al-Ghazal, The valuable contributions of Al-Razi (Rhazes) in the history of pharmacy during the Middle Ages, Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine, Vol. 3 (6), October 2004, pp. 9–11.
  10. 1 2 Information taken from the abstract of Hadzović, S (1997). "Pharmacy and the great contribution of Arab-Islamic science to its development". Medicinski arhiv (in Croatian). 51 (1–2): 47–50. ISSN 0350-199X. OCLC 32564530. PMID 9324574.
  11. John Brian Harley, David Woodward (1992). The history of cartography. 2. Oxford University Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-226-31635-1
  12. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-02-01. Retrieved 2010-03-21.
  13. Strocchia, Sharon T. (2011). "The Nun Apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: Marketing Medicines in the Convent". Renaissance Studies. 25 (5): 627–647.
  14. "Renaissance Foods". Renaissance Spell. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  15. Douglas, Julianne. "Remedies and Recipes". Writing the Renaissance. Retrieved 3 November 2014.
  16. The story, with the word "apothecary" used, is abstracted by Janice L. Willms in New York University's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database—"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner.

External links

Look up apothecary in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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