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In the 1800s chemists and druggists dispensed compounded medicines made to published recipes and pre-packaged ‘patent’ medicines whose contents were secret. They also sold useful products such as hairbrushes. Chemist and druggists’ shops sprang up in cities and country towns. Some were scientifically competent, many were not. This lack of regulation became a scandal and there were calls for reform which led to the Pharmaceutical Society being founded in 1842. This turned into the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the current professional regulatory body.

By the late 1800s pharmacology was reaping results from university research into organic chemistry. Scientists investigating toxic and alkaloid plant substances found they could make effective artificial or ‘synthetic’ copies which could be used as potent drugs (analgesics, barbiturates). For pain relief they discovered etherchloroform and synthetic aspirin and cocaine (Novocaine). Nutritional ‘vitamins’ were discovered and turned into pills. The interwar years saw radical changes: sulpha drugs emerged in 1935 and penicillin was produced on an increasing scale from 1940.

During the 1900s there was a move away from making up medicines in the shops themselves. Increasingly medicines were mass-produced in factories to be sold by retail chemists. At the same time these continued to sell many products besides medicines. Big chain-store retailers such as Boots sold their own brands. These major chains, with their hygienic products and uniformed assistants, were a social fixture in 20th-century Britain.



S Chapman, Jessie Boots of Boots the Chemists: a Business History (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1974)

T H Levere, Chemists and Chemistry in Nature and Society, 1770-1878 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994)

M Weatherall, ‘Drug therapies’ in W F Bynum & R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 2 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 915-938


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