Pharmagraphics

By Briony Hudson, Pharmacy historian, curator and lecturer

What do mandrake, medicinal treacle and the RPS headquarters have in common?

They all feature in Pharmagraphics , a new online “digital story” from the Wellcome Collection that explores the relationship between pharmacy and design across time.

I started work on the project with Julia Nurse, Wellcome Library’s Collections Researcher, earlier this year to produce six “chapters” that looked at different aspects of pharmacy history and how graphics, design and imagery played their part.  The aim was to link with the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’, and to draw on the fantastic collection of images both within Wellcome’s own collection and elsewhere including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum .

Pharmacy has relied on imagery for centuries, whether as botanical illustrations, advertising, symbolism or packaging design. The “digital story” format includes galleries of images that the reader can scroll through to find out more about each topic.  Our challenge was to choose six themes that investigated interesting histories, but also allowed us to share as many stunning images as possible.

We eventually settled on chapters that looked at:

  • The portrayal of plants, particularly through herbals, and especially how a plant’s power and toxicity was communicated through design
  • The contrast between the idyllic families shown in advertising for Victorian children’s medicines, and the use of opiates, alcohol and mercury within their formulae
  • The ancient preparation of theriac or medicinal treacle and whether the secret of its success was what today we regard as marketing a brand
  • The opulent designs of trade cards advertising apothecary’s businesses in the 18th century
  • The battle between quackery and professionalism in the 1840s and the use of images to play this out.  This chapter compares the satirical caricatures that attacked mid-19th century quack medicines and the careful considered imagery adopted by the new Pharmaceutical Society in its diploma certificate and coat of arms.
  • Pharmacy symbols across history, their meaning and their ongoing use.

Something that Julia and I kept coming back to as we researched these topics was how they all had contemporary resonances, and I hope that the finished chapters succeed in drawing these out.

Graphic design of course plays an important role in pharmacy today: the layout of a drug monograph; the immediacy of hazard symbols; the identity provided by a package design; or the tight control of medicines advertising that we probably take for granted.

The final chapter finishes with a gallery of images of pharmacy symbols around London, including the facade of the current RPS headquarters which embraces the pharmacy symbols originally chosen by its founders in the 1840s as still being relevant to the profession today.

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