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Pharmacy: The Mother of Invention

Who invented the electric lightbulb?

What sort of bird is in Bird’s Custard?

You’ll find the answers to these questions and more in our online exhibition! We’re celebrating pharmacists who have made an impact outside the chemist’s shop – how many of these inventive pharmacists do you recognise? 


William Cookworthy’s (1705-1780) was a pioneer in the porcelain industry, but how was he connected to pharmacy?

Born in 1705, at 14 William was taken on as an apprentice in London by Quaker chemist and druggist Silvanus Bevan. This seems to have gone well, as in 1726, Bevan offered him a position in a new wholesale pharmacy business in Plymouth and by 1735, they were partners. 

William’s interest in porcelain started by accident. He read a description of Chinese porcelain manufacture in the 1740s, and when merchants from America visited to promote Virginian clay, William investigated the production of porcelain further and in 1768 he was granted Patent number 898 for “Making porcelain from Moorstone, Growan and Growan clay.”

He found these minerals on the estate of Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, and set up the Plymouth China Works with him. They produced the first English hard paste porcelain making decorated tea services, jugs and vases, but the business failed to make any profit, and in 1774, William sold the patent and his share in the business to his cousin Richard Champion.

The Fire Extinguisher

Ambrose Godfrey (d.1756) and his brother, inherited their father’s business, supplying ingredients to apothecaries. Ambrose is also credited with designing an early fire extinguisher, which may or may not be related to his chemicals business!

Drawing on ideas from Zachary Greyl, Ambrose designed his extinguisher to suffocate the fire. It had a miniature wooden barrel filled with liquid, with gunpowder inserted in a pewter sphere at the centre of the barrel fitted with a fuse, pipe and guides to the top. Light the fuse and the explosion would scatter the liquid over the fire, putting it out.

Ambrose tested his prototype on Hampstead Heath in 1723 and a later report about a spate of fires in London in 1727 said: ‘I hear that the famous machines or Fire Watches, invented by Mr Godfrey the great Chymist[…] displayed their wonderful effects, and prevented the progress of that furious element [the fire]’.

It seems that Godfrey’s extinguisher was only used for a few years, until he died in 1756.


Luke Howard (1772-1864), known as the Father of Meteorology, was born in 1772. He was apprenticed to a Stockport chemist and druggist, Olive Sims, before he moved to London.

In 1795, with help from his father, Howard set up his own chemist and druggist business on Fleet Street, and from 1807 pioneered the supply of quinine.

Eager to devote his time to botany and meteorology, Howard left his laboratories in the capable hands of his son and published his Notes on the Modifications of the Clouds in 1803 (illustrated with his own watercolours). In it, he detailed his observations on cloud formations, and the terms he coined for types of clouds are still in use today, such as cirrus, stratus and cumulus.

Howard’s daily records of London’s weather from 1806 to 1830 were collected on his journeys from Plaistow to London and published in three volumes of Climate of London.

He was elected to the Royal Society in 1821 and died in 1864 at the grand old age of 92.

Hudson’s Soap

Robert Hudson (d.1884) invented the first dry soap powder, “Hudson’s Dry Soap” in 1837. He ground up his original batch of soap powder in a pestle and mortar in his small pharmacy in West Bromwich, probably using the coarse bar soap of the day. Hudson’s female staff packed the soap, apparently singing as they did so.

Hudson had a flair for advertising that led to his soap becoming a household name.  He took a risk by paying for local, then national advertising, at a level that no other manufacturer was carrying out. A coach with his adverts on it made the journey between Liverpool and York twice a week, and his most renowned slogan was “A little of Hudson’s goes a long way.”

After his death in 1884, Hudson’s was managed by one of his sons until Lever Brothers Ltd took it over in 1908.

Photographic Prints and the Electric Lightbulb

Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) served six years as an apprentice to Sunderland druggists, Hudson and Osbaldiston. However, after both partners died, Swan joined John Mawson’s pharmaceutical business in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Mawson encouraged Swan to pursue his scientific investigations, and they built a small laboratory above the shop. Swan was interested in photography and launched his own line of collodion, “Mawson’s Collodion”, in 1854.

But Swan’s first major invention was the Carbon process in 1864, which allowed permanent photographic prints to be made. Nor was it his last invention – Swan went on to develop another 70 in this field, including a dry plate photographic process based on gelatine and the use of silver bromide.

In 1877, Swan improved upon the 1845 invention of the incandescent lamp by placing a carbon filament in a vacuum (which prevented blacking in the lamp), creating what we now know as the lightbulb.

This was a major breakthrough, but sparked a dispute with American inventor Thomas Edison, about whom invented the lamp first. With the dispute settled, Edison and Swan formed a joint company in London.

Swan was knighted in 1904 and made an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society. He died in 1914, aged 86.

Bird’s Custard

Alfred Bird (1811-1878) became a member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in 1842, after serving an apprenticeship to Phillip Harris of Birmingham. In 1852 he passed the Society’s major examination and qualified as a pharmaceutical chemist, opening his own pharmacy in Bell Street, Birmingham in 1837.

Bird’s wife was very fond of custard, which at that time was prepared from eggs and milk. Unfortunately, Mrs Bird suffered from what we would today call an egg intolerance. So, her dutiful husband turned his attention to inventing an eggless version of custard. He succeeded, bringing relief to Mrs Bird and no doubt to thousands of others. The eagle-eyed bird, spotting an opportunity, began commercial production, and Bird’s Custard is still famous to this day.

Worcestershire Sauce

Worcester pharmacist John Wheeley Lea (1791-1882)  took on William Henry Perrins (1793–1867) as his apprentice in the early 19th century, and the two got on so well that in 1823 they entered into partnership, and by the middle of the century they owned four pharmacies.

The details of their invented their Worcestershire Sauce have been lost, but one version says that a Maharajah came into their shop demanding tongue-blistering sauces. Another, more probable, version is that the former governor of Bengal called at their pharmacy with a request to prepare his recipe for a sauce and was so delighted with the result that he introduced it to all his friends.

However, it was invented, in 1837, commercial production began of Worcestershire Sauce, and demand was so great that Lea & Perrins soon took over the premises next door to manufacture the quantities the public were demanding.

By 1865, Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce was so popular that they gave up the pharmacy business to concentrate on sauce manufacture.


John Walker (1781-1859) initially began a surgery apprenticeship with Watson Alcock but changed to pharmacy because he found it too gruesome. After working for pharmacies in Durham and York he eventually set up business in Stockton–on-Tees in 1819.

It was in his laboratory at the back of the shop there that he began to experiment with phosphorus, discovering a mixture of antimony sulphide and potassium chloride that when rubbed against a rough surface, would produce a flame. These wood splinters tipped with the mixture – or ‘friction lights’, as he called them, – went on sale in 1827. They were initially only sale in his shop but were later available by post.

Walker only produced his matches for three years, and decided not to patent his invention, despite encouragement by Michael Faraday and friends and many people copying his original idea. He was only given credit for his invention after his death in 1859.

The first person to sell matches commercially was Samuel Jones (1801-1859), who owned a shop on The Strand in London, appropriately called ‘The Lighthouse’. Jones’s ‘Lucifers’ differed in no way from Walker’s invention, but despite being sold for just a few years, the name caught on and matches were known as “Lucifers” for many years.

Table Salt

George Bowie (1864-1936) qualified as a pharmacist in Edinburgh in 1886, and not long after went to Guernsey, where he developed ‘Bowie’s Phosphorated Table Salt’ by adding phosphates to salt to prevent it from absorbing moisture and sticking together.

Meanwhile, George Weddell (1856–1916) had also qualified in Edinburgh and had also left to gain additional experience in London and Paris. He then joined Joseph Swan (our earlier lightbulb inventor) in a pharmacy trading as Mawson, Swan & Weddell.

Weddell then took Bowie’s invention and improved it, mixing magnesium carbonate and calcium carbonate into the salt in order, it’s said to help Weddell’s daughter, who was a sickly child. It was hoped the magnesium carbonate and calcium carbonate would strengthen her bones and teeth.

Weddell’s “Cerebos Salt” grew popular, and by 1896 their company had salesmen sending samples to doctors and chemists throughout the UK, as well giving away salt cellars and spoons in return for coupons placed in the tins of salt.

George Weddell died in 1916, but in 1919 Cerebos Salt Ltd bought Middlewich Salt Co Ltd, and had 850 women and 150 men working for the company.

The Gas Mask

Edward Frank Harrison (1869-1918) entered pharmacy at the age of 14 as an apprentice in North London. In 1890 he gained a Jacob Bell Scholarship and entered the School of Pharmacy in Bloomsbury Square, where he became a registered pharmacist, working in their laboratory and as an assistant lecturer in chemistry and physics.

Edward enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the First World War, and as a chemist was transferred to the Royal Engineers and made a lieutenant, where he began investigating ways to combat poisonous gas. His development of the small box respirator helped save the lives of thousands of British and French soldiers.

Sadly, Edward died of influenza on the 4th of November 1918, a week before the Armistice, and it was suspected that his overwork and exposure to poison gas when trying out experimental gasmasks had lowered his immunity. Despite his influenza, he continued to work with a raging temperature for several days until he collapsed and died.

He was buried in Brompton Cemetery in London with full military honours.


As well as using resources from the museum’s collections, these are the main books and journals we have used to research this exhibition. If you are interested in finding out more about any of the people or subjects covered in this exhibition, please contact us at the museum.

Lesley Matthews, Pharmacists in the Wider World (Merrell Pharmaceuticals Ltd: Hounslow, 1981)

Maurice Baren, How it all began (Smith Settle Ltd, Otley,1992)

Maurice Baren, How Household Names began (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd: London, 1997)

The Pharmaceutical Journal

Chemist and Druggist

Chemistry and Industry

The Flavour Industry

The Indian and Eastern Druggist