Women in early pharmacy

By Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

“There is an impression that women are something new in pharmacy, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

These were Jean Kennedy Irvine’s words on her election as the first woman President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in 1947.

Medieval monasteries

In her speech, Jean also mentioned the early beginnings of community pharmacy in the medieval monasteries, where residents would grow medicinal plants to treat themselves and local people.

One of the oldest items on display in the RPS Museum is a stone mortar from a Spanish nunnery (AD 410-1500), used for preparing medicines. The Hanbury Collection of the RPS Library also contains a later copy of the ‘Physica’, a work by St Hildegard, Abbess of Bingen. Originally written in the 1100s, it outlines the medicinal properties of various drugs obtained from the natural world.


With official medical practice mostly restricted to men until the 1800s, one of the main roles for women that was acceptable to (male) society was preparing medicines in the home. One book in our Archive collection gives an exciting glimpse into this. Inscribed on the first page ‘Elizabeth Boothe her Book April ye 20th 1649’, it contains a mix of culinary and medicinal recipes including remedies for plague that might have been used during the infamous outbreak of 1665. Later pages have different handwriting – was it handed down through successive generations of Boothe women?

Following in Hildegard’s footsteps

While Elizabeth’s book was created as a private family reference, other women took a more public approach. After the death of her husband in 1654, Alice Culpeper continued to publish a number of his remaining works on medicine. Nicholas Culpeper is still highly regarded today by modern herbalists, and this is thanks in part to Alice’s efforts.

In the 1730s the artist Elizabeth Blackwell compiled her Curious Herbal, featuring illustrations of medicinal plants drawn from specimens at the Chelsea Physic Garden. The money raised from sales of the book was used to secure her husband’s release from a debtor’s prison.

Practising pharmacists

By the time the Pharmaceutical Society was founded in 1841 there were already a number of women practising as chemists and druggists in their own right. When the first compulsory Register of pharmacists was compiled in 1869 it included the names of around 200 such women. It would be another decade, however, before they won their battle to become full members of the Society.

To find out more about their campaign and attitudes to women in pharmacy in the 1800s and 1900s, look out for the RPS Museum’s online exhibition, coming soon.

You are also welcome to visit us Monday-Friday 9am-5pm.

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