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The History of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Founded as the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain 180 years ago in 1841, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society supports the pharmacy profession not just in Great Britain but around the world.

But where did the Society come from?

Who founded it?

And how has it changed and grown into the RPS of today?

In the Beginning

Pharmacy has a long history, with remedies ranging from opium to peppermint used across the world for thousands of years. In medieval London, pharmacy was not a distinct trade, but controlled by the Company of Grocers, a guild that regulated the selling of spices, meat, food and drink.

As the city developed, so too did the manufacture and dispensing of medicines. The apothecaries, who manufactured and sold drugs, grew keen to break away from their guild, so they could take responsibility for the drugs they produced and ensure these were not adulterated.

The apothecaries split from the Company of Grocers in 1617 and became chartered in London as the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. As well as being responsible for regulating the sale and manufacture of medicines, the new society now had powers to inspect medicines, and you could only be called an apothecary after a seven-year apprenticeship.

In 1704 the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries won the Rose Case against the Royal College of Physicians, allowing apothecaries to prescribe medicines as well as dispense them, making them closer to modern general practitioners than pharmacists as we know them today.

The Rise of the Chemists and Druggists

A new pharmacy trade emerged in the eighteenth century, as the industrial revolution began.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries had left a gap in the market by moving into the role of general practitioner, and new chemists and druggists began to spring up in urban areas. They would typically own premises on the high street, where they mixed and dispensed chemicals and medicines, as well as selling tobacco, alcohol, cosmetics and food.

Unlike the apothecaries, the chemists and druggists were entirely unregulated, and without a national body to represent them, there was little sense of a pharmacy profession.

It was a competitive market, and chemists and druggists focused on the demands of their customers. Many specialised in different products, from chemicals for photography to developing matches – the famous Worcestershire Sauce of John Lea (1791-1882) and William Perrin (1793-1867) become so popular they gave up pharmacy to focus on its production.

In 1815, the introduction of the Apothecaries Act would have required all practicing apothecaries to hold a licence, so that the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries could control the chemists and druggists. The Bill required them to either become an apothecary or cease trading in medicines, but the chemists and druggists campaigned against the Bill and won.

However, this campaign had made it clear that the new chemists and druggists needed to protect their interests by joining together.

The Founding of the Pharmaceutical Society

Many medical professional bodies felt that chemists and druggists were untrained and unregulated, and the profession urgently needed to make their position in the medical landscape more secure. In 1841 a Medical Reform Bill was proposed, which set out to prevent chemists and druggists from dispensing medicines unless medically qualified – removing the need for a separate pharmacy profession.

A new professional body was needed for the chemists and druggists – one that would campaign on their behalf and protect their interests. So, on the 10 February 1841 Jacob Bell, a respected chemist, encouraged other London-based chemists and druggists to meet to discuss the impact of the Bill.

After their campaign against the Reform Bill was successful, the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was formed on 15 April 1841 at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand in London. William Allen proposed the motion, which was seconded by Jacob Bell’s father, John Bell. Allen was then voted to be the first President of the Society.

But this was just the beginning. In order to claim to represent the profession the Society had to have a substantial membership, so Bell wrote to chemists and druggists across England, Scotland and Wales encouraging them to join.

The Founding Members of the Society

The first Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had 40 members, and this group was responsible for creating the structure of the Society.

Key members included:

Jacob Bell – heir to his father John Bell’s successful pharmacy, serving as his apprentice in his Oxford Street shop, it was there he began networking with other chemists and druggists. Passionate about the founding of a professional organisation, he spent much of his time and money bringing the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain into existence and ensuring its success.

William Allen (1770-1843) – the Pharmaceutical Society’s first president. Born in Spitalfields in 1770, his father was a silk merchant, but Allen’s interest in chemistry led him to take up an apprenticeship with Joseph Gurney Bevan who ran a pharmacy. Allen eventually took over this pharmacy and partnered with Daniel Hanbury to form Allen and Hanburys.

Theophilus Redwood (1806-1892) – apprenticed in Cardiff with his brother-in-law, Charles Vachell, a surgeon apothecary, Redwood’s interest in chemistry led him to become Professor of Pharmacy at the Society’s School. He role also became the curator of the museum, the Society’s librarian and sub-editor of the Pharmaceutical Journal.

Robert Adolph Farmar (d1860) and George Walter Smith (d1860) – were made honorary secretary at the founding of the society. Farmar’s home at 40 Westminster Road was the site of the first meeting to discuss the affects of the potential Medical Reform Bill. Smith took over the role in full in 1842, with a salary of £150 per annum. He was known ‘industry zeal and ability’ by his former employers at Baiss Brothers and Co.

The Society gets a Royal Charter

The Society’s Royal Charter, awarded in 1843, gave it recognition from government, which was needed if it was to be seen as a profession rather than a trade. To further increase its standing as a profession, the Society focused on education, aiming at “advancing chemistry and pharmacy and promoting a uniform system of education [for] the protection of those who carry on the business of chemists and druggists.”

In order to function as a professional body, the Society needed members and it needed income. In the early years much of its membership came from London, and Jacob Bell worked hard to encourage chemists and druggists from all over the country to join and be represented. He published 2,000 copies of his pamphlet Observations addressed to the Chemists and Druggists of Great Britain on the Pharmaceutical Society, aimed at those outside the capital.

In September 1841, just five months after its foundation, the Society had 23 honorary members, 665 full members and 263 non-voting associate members.

Laws and Legislation

The profession now had a clearer mandate to advocate for change and reform through legislation. In 1852 a Pharmacy Bill established a register of pharmaceutical chemists for the first time, but this didn’t go far enough for many members because the register was voluntary, and not linked to a compulsory system of education.

The Society gained significantly more power to regulate the profession in the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which meant that pharmacists who wanted to dispense poisons had to join the Society’s register; which meant passing their national exams. The Act regulated pharmacy education and access to medicines, two of the Society’s main aims.

In 1880, following a legal case resulting from the wording of the 1868 Act, the Law Lords agreed that companies as well as ‘persons’ could operate pharmacy businesses. As a result, chain pharmacies began to appear, and by 1900 Jesse Boot had a chain of 250 branches. By 1908 the Society sought to limit the extent to which large chains of pharmacies were run by unqualified businessmen, and the 1908 Poisons and Pharmacy Act ensured that a qualified pharmacy superintendent was required to be on their board of directors.

Finding a Headquarters

In December 1841 the Society took a lease of a house at 17 Bloomsbury Square as its headquarters, and the Council met there for the first time in January 1842. The Society immediately set about hosting lectures at the new premises, as well as setting up a museum, library and laboratory. In 1857 it acquired more space at 72 and 73 Great Russell Street. The internal spaces, including the lecture theatre, examination rooms and laboratories were all extended and updated.

Established initially as an educational resource, the primary focus of the museum was to have a collection of sample drugs and ingredients, also known as materia medica, for students to study. In practice, the collection was primarily used for lecture resources or to test purity samples by comparison, and by the 1950s it was transferred to the University of Bradford and then to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, having lost its relevance to new students. Since the 1930s the museum has focused on objects relating to the history of pharmacy, such as traditional dispensing equipment, proprietary medicines and drug storage containers

A New School

Education was an important policy for the Pharmaceutical Society, as previously there was no centralised standard to pharmacy education. Many felt that regulating the education of the profession would lead to better quality chemists. In 1842 the Society’s School of Pharmacy was formally founded, and in the 1860s the headquarters were fitted with a state-of-the-art pharmacy laboratory.

Full membership, and the title of pharmaceutical chemist, was granted after the major exam was passed. Initially there was a minor exam for chemist’s assistants which would grant associate membership to the Society, but the 1868 Pharmacy Act changed the focus of the minor exam to qualifying chemists and druggists.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, discoveries in medical sciences changed the nature of the syllabus, with courses added to incorporate new fields such as bacteriology. In 1924 the first bachelor’s degree course for pharmacy was launched by the University of London, and by 1967 all pharmacy students had to take a degree course. The Society was instrumental in approving which schools could teach the national syllabus. In 1949 the school separated from the Society and joined the University of London, later becoming part of UCL in 2012.

To be a Member or not to be a Member?

As with any profession, there were many different opinions about membership of the Society. Some were happy to join, while others were reluctant, seeing other chemists and druggists as competition. The attitudes towards members and non-members reflected the social dynamics of the time: for example, masters could be members while employees could not.

In 1841 chemist’s assistants could take the minor exam and become associates but were prohibited from becoming full members. Associates were not able to attend general meetings, vote or hold office.

The associate category was discontinued in 1898, although after 2005 technicians could, for a time, join as associate members. Today, technicians must register with General Pharmaceutical Council in order to practice.

After the Jenkins Case of 1920 the Society was not allowed to take on the responsibilities of a trade union, such as regulating hours of business or fixing prices. Instead the Retail Pharmacists Union was formed.

In 1953 the Chemist and Druggist qualification was phased out, and all Society members were given the title of pharmacist. All full members of the society were given the title of Fellow, but since then this has been an honorary award.

A Growing Reputation

When the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was first founded Jacob Bell was concerned at the lack of focus on pharmacists outside London. Local branches were set up in Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich. Part of their work was supporting pharmacy students unable to attend lectures at the Headquarters in Bloomsbury.

Founded in 1841, the North British Branch supported members in Scotland and North England. In 1884 the branch moved to York Place in Edinburgh and the local committee later became the Executive body for the Society in Scotland. In 1948 the North British Branch became the Scottish Department.

The Welsh Executive was founded in 1976 replacing Rhanbarth Cymru, the Society’s Welsh Committee.

Before the founding of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1841, the French standard for pharmacy education was the international benchmark. As the Society’s reputation grew, more and more overseas pharmacists joined, such as L. Marie, who registered with the Society in 1892 and joined the British Pharmaceutical Conference that year. This saw the start of the inclusive and diverse profession that continues today, and the Society continues to welcome international members.

Women in the Society

Women had a strong role in pharmacy long before the foundation of the Pharmaceutical Society. They would mix home remedies or sell medicinal herbs, and in the 19th century could also take over a chemist and druggist premises after the death of their husband or father.

The 1868 Pharmacy Act required all practicing pharmacists to register with the Society, but, for the first time, women members became an issue. The first compulsory register included 223 women eligible as established pharmacists, and although women could own their own business and sit the Society’s exam, they were banned from becoming full members. Not until 1879, after years of campaigning, did women win the right to full membership.

Throughout the 20th century women took on more roles within the Society.Margaret Buchanan was the first female member of the Council in 1918; Agnes Borrowman joined the Society’s Board of Examiners in 1924, and in 1947 Jean Irvine became the first woman President.

A majority of pharmacists working today are women, and they are represented on the National Pharmacy Boards of England, Scotland and Wales. However, there is still a gender pay gap and they are underrepresented in senior roles in the profession, particularly women from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Changing Roles in the 20th Century

The 20th century saw a great many changes in pharmacy, and the Society always sought to represent the profession through these changes. Under the National Insurance Act of 1911, the prescribing and dispensing of medicines were formally separated except in rural areas. In 1948 the creation of the National Health Service saw pharmacists take on an even greater role in dispensing prescriptions.

The century also saw a boom for the pharmaceutical industry: the discovery and development of sulphonamides and early antibacterials helped grow the industry, as well as the development of technologies for mass production.

Before 1911 many hospital pharmacists manufactured medicines on site, as a cost-effective way of producing the medicines needed on the wards. With the therapeutic revolution of the 1950s and 60s, pharmacists had a greater presence on ward and ensuring medicine stocks were accurate. As the role of the pharmacist expanded, so too did the role of technicians to cover pharmacists’ time.

The 1986 Nuffield report and a 1992 report by the Department of Health helped expand the role of community pharmacists. Both recommended that pharmacists take on roles in public health promotions as well as consultations and advice.

Pharmacist Support

With the founding of the society a Benevolent Fund was created to support members that had fallen on hard times. There was no welfare state at this time, and the fund supported those who lost their income through illness or the death of a loved one.

The society’s benevolent fund was made available to all members, as well as their wives and children. Sometimes there were specific appeals such as the 1918 the War Auxiliary Benevolent Fund, created for pharmacists who needed support as a result of the First World War.

Birdsgrove House in Derbyshire was gifted to the Benevolent Fund in 1946. The house was used as a convalescent home for pharmacists recuperating from illness and services included treatment for addiction. Residents could take part in different activities like music or bowls and could go for walks in the nearby Peak District. Birdsgrove House closed sixty years after opening, after a decline in pharmacists needing to use the home.

In 2006 the Benevolent Fund became the independent charity Pharmacist Support. Today it continues to support pharmacists through wellbeing services, student bursaries and specialist advice.

Pharmaceutical Press: A Knowledge Business

Our publishing roots go back to 1841 when founder Jacob Bell first edited The Pharmaceutical Journal, considered one of the few ‘class’ periodicals of its time.

Other well known publications include The Extra Pharmacopoeia originally written by William Martindale, a member of the Society’s Council, and later continued by his son. In 1933 the Pharmaceutical Society purchased the rights to produce and sell the resource, now called Martindale: The Complete Drug Reference.

In 1949 the Pharmaceutical Society and the British Medical Association took the war formulary and continued to publish it for general use as the British National Formulary, the first choice for concise medicines information, recognised worldwide today.

Stockley’s Drug Interactions, edited by Dr Ivan Stockley launched in 1981 to help healthcare professionals quickly and reliably decide the best course of action when managing the use of drug combinations, and has become another essential guide for health professionals.

Today, our trusted portfolio of respected resources covers therapeutics and the design and manufacture of medicines and has grown to include many other respected publications consulted daily around the world through our online platform Medicines Complete. We’re proud that Pharmaceutical Press continues to provide essential information to support healthcare professionals to confidently make informed decisions on the safe and effective use of medicines.

The RPS Today

Today the RPS supports pharmacists in the different aspects of their practice.

Through the 20th century the Pharmaceutical Society promoted the use of a recognisable symbol to help patients identify pharmacies. The word ‘Chemist’ was replaced by the less ambiguous word ‘Pharmacy’ and in 1984 a simplified version of the green cross replaced the glass carboys previously seen in pharmacy windows.

In 1988 the Queen granted the title ‘Royal’ to the Pharmaceutical Society. Following the passage of the Social Care Act 2008 and the Pharmacy Order 2010, regulation of the profession passed to the newly created General Pharmaceutical Council.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society became the professional leadership body for pharmacists in England, Scotland and Wales that we know today, with a mission to put pharmacy at the forefront of healthcare and a vision is to become the world leader in the safe and effective use of medicines. RPS continues to champion the profession and is internationally renowned as publishers of medicines information.

Further Reading


Thank you to Stuart Anderson, Briony Hudson, Selina Hurley and the British Society for the History of Pharmacy for supporting this exhibition.