Uncovering hidden histories at the RPS Museum

by Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

Part of our work here at the RPS Museum includes researching various aspects of pharmacy history so we can enrich our displays, tours and articles, especially those areas that are currently under-represented in the museum.

A recent focus of this research has been to uncover more stories relating to BAME communities. This isn’t an easy task as historical registers of pharmacists did not record information relating to ethnicity. In addition to this lack of documentary evidence, there is little visual material available, particularly in the early years of the Society before the widespread introduction of photography.

But we didn’t let that stop us. When we look through the records, we can see tantalising glimpses of stories that we can use as a starting point for our research. The earliest specific reference we have found in the Society’s archive is the arrival of the first black African student at the School of Pharmacy in 1847, as noted in the report of the Annual General Meeting of May 1848, which reflects the attitudes of the time:

It is also gratifying to find that some have come from distant countries, and one of these, an intelligent African, is probably the first native of that soil who will apply a knowledge of Chemistry acquired in an English School, with the view of promoting the arts of civilization among his colored brethren.”

But who was this student? Frustratingly he isn’t named, but he may have been Joseph Mailloux. The Society published its first list of ‘Foreign Life Members’ in the Pharmaceutical Journal in 1856 and Joseph is listed as having been admitted to membership in 1847. He was based in Mauritius, which at that time was a British colony. His certificate number of 28 shows that he took and passed one of the Society’s exams, so would have been studying at the School around the time referred to in the above report.

Despite poring over the various resources available to us, we couldn’t find out much more about Joseph Mailloux. He remains on the Society’s register until 1877, so seems to have had a 30-year career. An annotation in the Registrar’s copy of the register confirms that his removal was because he had died, but no obituary was published in either the Pharmaceutical Journal or the Chemist and Druggist, a familiar story with international members of the Society at this time.

There is still a lot of work to do in terms of including more marginalised voices in the museum. Hopefully this blog has shown that there are stories to be told and histories to be revealed – we just need to keep on digging to find them and highlight diversity in the profession.