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The medieval apothecary was the ancestor of the modern GP (general practitioner). In medieval Europe individuals selling wine, spices and herbs were known as apothecaries. They prepared and sold medicines to physicians and directly to patients. In addition, they offered medical advice and other products.

The apothecaries were originally part of the grocery business, but from the 1200s, across Europe they began to establish guilds, sometimes jointly with physicians. Their role was to supply drugs to doctors, rather than prescribe medicines themselves. They trained through apprenticeships and, from the 1500s, some university study as well.

In England, the Society of Apothecaries was established in 1617, breaking away from the Grocers’ Company. This gave apothecaries more freedom in the kinds of medicines they could sell, including quack remedies and patent medicines.

In the 1700s apothecaries were some of the most common medical practitioners. For instance, in Bristol in 1775 there were 8 physicians, 56 surgeon-apothecaries and 3 druggists. Medical students could become a surgeon-apothecary without going to university, and could earn a living from minor surgery and dispensing drugs.

The role of the apothecaries changed during the 1800s and early 1900s. Increasingly they provided medical care, while chemist’s shops took over the retail aspects of selling medicine. In turn the preparation of drugs became laboratory based and increasingly industrialised.


P Hunting, History of the Society of Apothecaries (London: Society of Apothecaries, 1998)

I Loudon, ‘The vile race of quacks with which this country is Infested’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Medical Fringe and Medical Orthodoxy 1750-1850 (London: Croom Helm 1987), pp 106-128