After the Pharmaceutical Society was founded in 1841, women had to fight for recognition in the profession – but women have always had a role to play in pharmacy.
It took almost 40 years for them to win their battle to become full members in 1879, but there is still work to be done so that all women can fulfil their potential in pharmacy.
This online exhibition introduces women who have fought to be part of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the wider profession. You’ll discover the women who became leading members of the profession and learn about their journeys towards inclusion. You’ll also see the steps being taken today to ensure that all women in pharmacy can thrive.
Women Pharmacists in the 19th Century
Women have always been involved in the production and administration of medicines. However, in the early days of the Pharmaceutical Society the status of female pharmacists was unclear. The Society’s Council passed a resolution banning women from the school when Elizabeth Garrett (later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) attended lectures at the Society’s School of Pharmacy in the 1860s. Elizabeth became the first woman in England to qualify as a doctor.
The Pharmacy Act of 1868 required all practicing pharmacists to register with the Society and so 223 women joined the first compulsory register in 1869. They had been in business before 1st August 1868, but at the time, it wasn’t unusual for women to take over businesses established by their fathers or husbands, despite their limited opportunities for education.
After their inclusion on the 1869 Register, women started to take the Society’s exams alongside their male counterparts. Despite this, they were not eligible for prizes, or to work in the Society’s chemical laboratories. Fanny Elizabeth Deacon was the first woman to pass the Modified Exam, designed for practicing pharmacists, in 1869. The first woman to qualify as a Chemist and Druggist was Alice Vickery was, who passed the Society’s Minor exam five years later. Despite being able to work as pharmacists, women had no rights within the Society and therefore no role to play in the regulation of the profession.
Fanny Elizabeth Potter: The first women to registered with the society
In 1870, Fanny (Frances) Elizabeth Potter was the first woman to qualify for registration with the Pharmaceutical Society after the Pharmacy Act of 1868. She appeared on the Society’s register as a Chemist and Druggist that year, having qualified on 5th February 1869 by taking the Modified Exam.
Her first registered address was the same as her father, William Potter, who was also a pharmacist. They worked in Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire until Fanny married Abraham Deacon the minister of Fleckney Carmel Strict and Peculiar Chapel, in 1875. The next year, Fanny and her father moved to Fleckney and she began working as a pharmacist next-door to the chapel.
After Abraham’s death in 1911 their son Augustine, known as Gus, took over part of the pharmacy premises as a watchmaker, and the shop became known as Gus Deacon’s Chemist and Watch Repair Shop. Fanny remained listed at Fleckney until her death, aged 92, in 1930.
Alice Vickery: The first women to qualify as a Chemist and Druggist
When she passed the Society’s Minor exam on 18 June 1873 Alice Vickery was the first woman to qualify as a Chemist and Druggist. She was born in Devon in 1844 but had moved to London by 1861, where she began her medical career in 1869 at the Ladies’ Medical College.
She trained as a midwife, qualifying in 1873, and while at the college met Charles Drysdale, her companion and co-worker. Both objected to the institution of marriage, an unusual stance at the time.
Since no British medical schools admitted women, Alice went to France in 1873 to study medicine at the University of Paris, returning to London in 1877 to complete her training at the London Medical School for Women.
Alice spent her life supporting the rights of women. She gave frequent lectures promoting birth control as an essential element for the emancipation of women. She joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, later moving on to the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union, and then the non-violent Women’s Freedom League.
Alice continued to support the rights of women, even after she had retired from practicing medicine. In 1923 she moved to Brighton to be near her elder son, becoming an active president of the Women’s Freedom League local branch, and addressed a meeting only days before her death, from pneumonia, on 12 January 1929.
Women Pharmacists Become Members of the Society
The status of women pharmacists became a firm political issue in the 1870s. Having passed the Society’s Preliminary exam, three women, Rose Minshull, Louisa Stammwitz, and Alice Hart were put forward at the Council meeting in February 1873 as “registered students” of the Society. The motion was rejected. The three continued to petition the Council to allow ladies access to the Society’s chemistry laboratories, and permission was finally granted in 1877.
The debate over women and Society membership began to reach the pages of The Pharmaceutical Journal and the Chemist & Druggist, where attitudes towards women varied greatly. In 1879, members finally agreed that women should become members. Ironically, some Council members seem to have given in simply to end the debate, or “to avoid further agitation” as one put it, rather than through any ethical belief that women ought to be allowed equal rights.
The number of women in the pharmaceutical workforce increased, with many working as dispensers in hospitals and other institutions, or as assistants in shops. However, the number of women on the statutory register fell in the late 1800s.
Rose Minshull: Top of her class
Rose Coombs Minshull came top of her class of 166 candidates when she passed the Society’s Preliminary Exam in 1873. Despite her obvious abilities, the Council rejected her application to study at the Society as a “registered student” in February 1873.
Despite this setback, Rose passed the Minor examination with top marks and registered as a Chemist & Druggist on 18 October 1877. Two years later, in 1879, she passed the Major examination and, alongside Isabella Clarke-Keer, was one of the first women elected members of the Society.
In 1884 Rose began work as a dispenser at the North Eastern Hospital for Children and wrote in an article for The Chemist and Druggist: “As the result of many years’ hospital work, I am decidedly of the opinion that certainly in women’s and children’s hospitals a lady dispenser is the right woman in the right place.”
Rose remained a registered Pharmaceutical Chemist until her death on 9 May 1905 at 11 Marine Parade, Hastings. She was only 58.
Isabella Clarke: The first President of the Association of Women Pharmacists
Isabella Skinner Clarke registered with the Pharmaceutical Society as a Chemist and Druggist on 22 April 1875 and became a pharmaceutical chemist by passing the Major exam on 15 December 1875. Shortly after, she established her own business at Spring Street, Paddington, London, and took female medical students for their dispensing course.
This led to her being appointed as Tutor in Pharmacy at the Royal Free School of Medicine for Women, but she wasn’t elected as one of the first women members of the Pharmaceutical Society until 1879.
Alice met Thomas Keer, a fellow student at Muter’s School of Pharmacy in Clapham, and in 1883 they were married. She gave up her Spring Street business and became her husband’s partner in a pharmacy in Bruton Street, Berkley Square.
Isabella later started a Home for Students at their home in Endsleigh Street, which was where the first meeting of the Association of Women Pharmacists took place. Many of the Association’s early meetings were held in Isabella’s dining room.
During the First World War, despite being over 70 years old, Isabella worked daily at the Admiralty. She died in Croydon on 30 July 1926, aged 84.
Louisa Stammwitz sat the Society’s Preliminary exam with Rose Minshull in 1873, and both trained at the South London School of Pharmacy under Dr Muter, the same school as Isabella Clarke.
Louisa campaigned alongside Rose Minshull and Alice Hart to allow female students access to the Society’s chemical laboratories.
After the Council refused to make her a Registered Student of the Society, Louisa passed the Minor examination and registered as a Chemist & Druggist on 18 October 1877. She passed the Major examination and registered as a Pharmaceutical Chemist on 12 December 1878.
Her first post was as Dispenser at the New Hospital for Women in London, where she stayed for nine years. She then set up in partnership with Annie Neve, another female pharmacist, and opened a pharmacy in Paignton, Devon. Louisa later retired to live with Annie in Sanderstead, Croydon, where she died in 1916.
Foundation of the Association of Women Pharmacists
On Thursday 15 June 1905, a group of women pharmacists met at 5 Endsleigh Street in London to establish an Association of Women Pharmacists. The group’s objectives would be to discuss questions relating to women’s employment, establish a locum register and register of all qualified women, as well as the “furtherance of social intercourse“.
50 women joined immediately, making Isabella Clarke-Keer the Association’s first President, with Margaret Buchanan as Vice President. Members had to hold one of the Society’s certificates and pay a membership fee of five shillings if they were a Society member, or 10 shillings if not.
This first meeting, described in the Chemist & Druggist as “a meeting both historical and novel“, focused on the problems of women trying to find pharmacy employment. Although women could now become members of the Pharmaceutical Society, there were still concerns about the availability of suitable employment for them, and the conditions under which they were expected to work.
Margaret Elizabeth Buchanan registered as a Chemist and Druggist in 1886 and was then the only female student at the Pharmaceutical Society’s School of Pharmacy to take double honours in its exams. She was also the first woman to be awarded its Silver Medal.
Margaret recognised that aspiring female pharmacists needed an opportunity to gain training in running a business. In 1892, she wrote that “it is becoming recognised by the public and the trade that women can be both business-like and well-trained scientifically, the number of lady-pharmacists will doubtless increase as the field further opens up”.
Margaret founded the Gordon Hall School of Pharmacy for Women in 1905. The school grew from a group of private pupils that she took on at her house in Gordon Square.
Between 1911 and 1914 Margaret bought a business at 17 The Pavement, as a training pharmacy for women. Her pupils at Gordon Hall worked there, three in the morning and three in the afternoon, to gain practical experience.
Margaret was the first female member of the Society’s Council when she was elected in 1918, retiring in 1926. The Chemist & Druggist of 1909 described her as holding “the front rank among the women pharmacists of the British Empire.”
Margaret retired to Dartmouth in 1924 and died on 1 January 1940.
Women Pharmacists in the 20th Century
Although the issue of female membership of the Society had been resolved by the 20th Century, women still had to work hard to achieve within the pharmacy profession, and their pay and job opportunities were still limited by their gender. Very few ran their own businesses.
However, the proportion of female pharmacists in the profession grew steadily throughout the century. By 1945 about 10 per cent of pharmacists were female, rising to 18 per cent by 1959, and doubling to 36 per cent in 1984.
Despite a general lack of representation, women began to take on senior roles within the RPS in the 20th Century. Jean Irvine became the first female president of the RPS, and others soon followed in her footsteps.
Agnes Borrowman was the first woman to serve on the Society’s Board of Examiners. Beginning her career in her native Scotland, she soon discovered that many customers would prefer to leave the shop than be served by a woman.
In 1914, she moved to 17 The Pavement, which remained her registered address for the rest of her life. At first, she worked alongside Margaret Buchanan, but after the First World War, Agnes became the sole proprietor.
By 1923, of the 15 girls trained at The Pavement who studied at the Pharmaceutical Society’s School of Pharmacy, 14 had taken prizes and scholarships. Under her leadership, the business was staffed entirely by women. She believed firmly that if women were given the opportunity, they would achieve just as much as male pharmacists.
In 1923 Agnes became the first female member of the Society’s Board of Examiners, thus displaying her commitment to education and training.
In January 1945, the pharmacy was badly damaged by a V2 bomb that fell nearby. Agnes was severely shaken and left London for some time to recover. It was at this point that she converted the business into a limited company, called Deane and Co. Chemists Ltd, with Miss Hilda Francis Wells as Director.
Agnes died in 1955, aged 74.
Jean Kennedy Irvine: The first female President
Jean Kennedy was born in Hawick, Roxburghshire, and served her apprenticeship in the town. She qualified in 1900, and her first post was as assistant pharmacist to the Glasgow Apothecaries Company. She subsequently became chief pharmacist.
After her marriage to Peter Irvine, Jean helped to manage his two Glasgow pharmacies. During World War One, she moved to London to be nearer to her husband, who had joined the army at the outbreak of the war. In 1916, she was appointed superintendent of the Joint Committee for Pricing Prescriptions, South-Eastern Division, and remained there for more than 30 years both under the National Health Insurance Act, and the National Health Service Act. She was the first woman president of the staff side of the Whitley Council for the National Insurance administrative, technical and clerical services. She was also the first woman elected to the presidency of the Insurance Committee Officers Association for England and Wales.
Jean was elected to the Society’s council in 1937, only the third woman to have achieved this, and became its first woman President in 1947, aged 70. Well known for her strength of character, she once described the Council as ‘crazy’ in a public session. However, Jean was well respected for her support and encouragement of younger colleagues. She retired in 1952and died in 1962, aged 85.
Mary Agnes Burr
Mary Burr entered into community pharmacy when she took over the Park Pharmacy in Nottingham in 1936. It was a family business, and she worked with her brother and sister.
Agnes became the second woman to serve as president of the RPS from 1962-1963. Later she was awarded a Charter Gold Medal in 1973 for her outstanding pharmacy work, and in 1975 was awarded an OBE for services to pharmacy.
In 1985 she ensured that the décor of her former pharmacy was preserved by transferring it to the Cookworthy Museum, in Kingsbridge Devon, saving it from demolition.
She was renowned for her tireless energy and died in 1997 at the age of 90.
Estelle Josephine Mary Leigh
Estelle Feeney registered as a chemist and druggist in 1940. During her career she worked in both community and hospital pharmacy moving throughout England. She married in 1957, becoming Estelle Leigh, and she settled in Ormskirk in Lancashire in 1969.
Estelle was an active member of the Pharmacy community in Liverpool and ran for the Society Council 1963.
She became President of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1977. In 1981 she was awarded an OBE for services to pharmacy and was later awarded the Society’s Charter Gold Medal in 1983. Estelle died in 1999.
Marion Rawlings was President of the RPS from 1989-1990 and was a member of the society’s council from 1983 until 1995. She was awarded an OBE for services to pharmacy and won the Society Charter Gold Medal in 1990, the year of her retirement.
Marion began her career in community pharmacy. She set up her own pharmacy in Cardiff in 1957 that she ran for the rest of her career. She also took on roles to promote pharmacy in Wales as chairman of the Welsh Central Contractors Committee as well as the secretary of the South Glamorgan Local Pharmaceutical Committee.
Marion Rawlings died in 2013.
Linda Stone became President of the RPS from 1990 to 1991, after establishing her career in community pharmacy.
In 1997 she became Chairman of the International Pharmaceutical Federation Working Group on GPP in Developing countries. Linda later became the Chairman of the British Sjögren’s Syndrome Association in 2002 and continues to represent the charity today.
On 4 November 2004 Linda was awarded an OBE for services to the NHS in the West Midlands. She is an RPS Fellow and still works in community pharmacy as a locum in addition to continuing her work in pharmacy regulation.
Ann Lewis was President of the RPS for two terms from 1994 until 1996. She registered as a pharmacist in 1965, but also had an interest in law for which she earned a degree in 1973. These two areas of expertise made her well suited to her later work with the RPS.
After her term as President, Ann continued with the society as secretary and registrar from 1998 until her retirement in 2007. She was a key force behind much of the RPS’s work during that time, but most notably the Pharmacy in a New Age initiative, which looked to forge a new future for the pharmacy profession.
Ann was awarded an OBE in 1997 for services to the pharmacy profession but earned many other awards in recognition of her tireless work, including the Evan Gold Medal from the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists and the Schering award from the College of Pharmacy Practice. Ann was also recognised academically earning an honorary doctorate from the University of Sunderland and an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moore’s University. She was awarded the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Gold Medal in 2009.
Not only was Ann accomplished in the pharmacy profession, she was also well respected for her outgoing and adventurous nature. She died in 2013 at the age of 71.
Christine Glover served as president of the RPS for two terms from 1999 until 2001.
Christine gave much of her time to working with the RPS having previously held a term of vice president in 1997-1998. Later she was a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Council until 2005.
She still supports the RPS as a Fellow.
Women in Pharmacy Today
Today the challenges facing women in pharmacy take a different shape to those of the 19th and 20th centuries. Women no longer struggle to enter the profession, in 2019 women accounted for 62% of GPhC registrants. Yet women remain under-represented in senior leadership roles. Despite representing the majority of pharmacists, only 2% of women are pharmacy business owners compared with 13% of men. There also continue to be gender and ethnicity pay gaps affecting women in pharmacy.
RPS continues to address these challenges, and in recent years has held an annual Women in Leadership conference, to explore ways of supporting women to fill leadership roles. The Pharmaceutical Journal continues to champion the issue of pay gaps.
Despite these challenges, the contribution of women in pharmacy is continuing to grow. Our Inclusion and Diversity strategy now focuses on championing inclusive leadership and supporting women leaders from diverse backgrounds across all levels of pharmacy.
Women today continue to represent the profession in the RPS as presidents, on the National Boards as RPS Fellows and as members of staff.
Dr Gill Hawksworth was elected as the President of the RPS in 2003, the first time all elected officer posts at the Society were filled by women. Alongside Hawksworth, former president Linda Stone served as treasurer and Alison Ewing as vice president.
Gill first registered as a pharmacist in 1974. She opened her own pharmacy in Yorkshire in 1986 and then in 1999 completed her PhD, which she had undertaken part time. She later went on to become a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield.
Gill was a member of the RPS Council from 1992 until 2000 and became a Fellow of the RPS in 1997. Gill continued to be recognised for her commitment to pharmacy, winning the Schering Award in 1999. She was awarded an MBE for services to pharmacy in 2002. In 2017 she won the RPS Lifetime achievement award.
Sandra Gidley was RPS president from 2019 – 2021 making her the one-hundredth non-consecutive president of the RPS. She had previously served four years as chair of the English Pharmacy Board and is a Fellow of the RPS.
Sandra has worked predominantly in community pharmacy, with a background in supermarket pharmacy management.
From 2000-2010 she was the Liberal Democrat MP for Romsey, and as a member of the Health Select Committee, she was able to raise the profile of pharmacy within government. Sandra uses her previous shadow ministerial responsibility for health and equality to advocate for inclusion and diversity within the pharmacy industry.
Current President of the RPS Claire Anderson was elected in 2021. She is Professor of Social Pharmacy, Division of Pharmacy Practice and Policy, at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham.
Registering in 1982 Claire has over 30 years of academic experience, developing the first community pharmacy diploma at King’s College, and publishing over 150 peer review papers. She completed her PhD in 1997, ‘Health Promotion by Community Pharmacists’ at King’s College London.
Claire’s work has an international reputation, particularly her research on pharmacy education and workforce development. She is a Fellow of the RPS and of the International Pharmaceutical Federation. Claire is also a trustee of the Commonwealth Pharmacists’ Association.
In her role as President, Claire pledges to ‘to amplify the voice of pharmacy, to advocate for change and to support future generations of pharmacists’.
National Pharmacy Boards
There are currently a majority of women members elected to the National Pharmacy Boards of England, Scotland and Wales, including Thorrun Govind and Cheryl Way as Chairs of the English and Welsh Pharmacy Boards respectively.
The Boards have a total of 19 women and 16 men who direct the work of RPS and champion the role of pharmacy in healthcare at all levels and sectors, through work with government, academia, the voluntary sector and other stakeholders.
Women to Watch
In March 2020 the Pharmaceutical Journal launched their Women to Watch Campaign to recognise and celebrate women working in the pharmacy profession. The campaign was part of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s priorities for inclusion and diversity to create a culture of belonging, champion inclusive and authentic leadership and to challenge barriers to inclusion and diversity.
In December 2021 this year’s list of 12 women was published including profiles of women across the pharmacy profession.
The 2021 Women to Watch are:
- Adanna Anthony-Okeke
- Alifia Chakera
- Atika Tailor
- Claire Brandish
- Iqra Sarwar
- Jasmeen Islam
- Nargis Gulzar
- Natasha Callender
- Nirali Sisodia
- Nkiruka Umaru
- Noma Al-Ahmad
- Sophie Blow
We know that there are many stories missing from this exhibition. If you know of a woman who you feel has made impactful contributions to pharmacy in the past please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope to continue to tell the story of the diverse pharmacy workforce, and the steps that are still being made towards intersectional equality.
Thank you to the following people who have shared their own research, or carried out research for the exhibition: Marilyn Creese, Shirley Ellis, Robert J Mead, Sue Symonds, Linda Lisgarten, Kirsteen Nixon, Peter Homan, and Helena Wojtczak
Thank you to Briony Hudson, the British Society for the History of Pharmacists and the Executive Group of the National Association of Women Pharmacists.