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Short History of the Apothecary

Apothecary shops got their start in the Renaissance, but their origins date back as far as human history. As humans evolved so did their uses of what nature provided them to use to ease pain, disease, and suffering. The art of the apothecary originated from the methods of preparing substances for the treatment of injury or disease. In primitive times, the early practitioners of this art were those who attended the sick and prepared remedies which were handed down by word of mouth from one wise man or woman to the next throughout the generations.

In the early centuries, the Romans brought with them a vast knowledge of herbs as they conquered Europe. They brought over 200 herbs to Britain with them when they invaded. During the 400 years they occupied Britain, these herbs had become naturalized and now grow wild. With the establishment of the Christian Church, many monasteries were founded. These herbs that were left behind by the Romans became the backbone of the monastic apothecary garden. From the fifth to the twelfth centuries the remnants of western knowledge of medicine and apothecary was preserved in the monasteries. Monasteries became centers for learning and medicine, and people would flock to them for healing, both spiritually and physically. Into medieval times, most knowledge on the medicinal properties of herbs and plants was still handed down by word of mouth. Illiteracy was rampant, and the religious orders were some of the few at the time that could read and write. The church felt it was best for healing to include God, and so they encouraged the people to believe that the monasteries were the only places for healing. Most housewives knew basic remedies, but anything beyond the basic was considered work for God's servants. That way if the cure worked then it was God's will, and if not it was also His will. The emphasis was on the spiritual and not the medicinal.

During this time late in the eighth century the Arabs in Baghdad separated the duties of the apothecary from the physician. The first apothecary stores were then established. They added to the Greco-Roman wisdom of the past with Persian, Indian, and Chinese plants and herbs such as camphor, cassia, cloves, nutmeg, rhubarb, senna, sandalwood, and many others. Sugar cane was also grown in Arab countries and was available at a reasonable price. This opened up the door for new compounded items such as syrups, confections, and conserves. Distillation of aromatic waters and alcoholic preparations was almost monopolized by the Arab apothecaries. The Arabs carried this new pattern of Apothecaries into Western Europe when the Moslems swept across Africa, Spain and southern France. Western Europe soon assimilated this into their culture.

In Europe in 1240 the apothecary and medicine were formally separated when German Emperor and King of Sicily, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, regulated the practice of apothecaries within that part of his kingdom known as the Two Sicilies. His edict separating the two professions acknowledged that apothecaries required special knowledge, skill, initiative, and responsibility if adequate care of the medical needs of the people was to be guaranteed. It was during this time that the first public apothecaries began appearing in Europe as had already appeared in the Arab nations.

In London, apothecaries were originally members of the Grocer's guild starting in 1316 when it was known as the Guild of Pepperes. By the mid 16th century there were public apothecary stores in London. It was not until 1617 that the apothecaries were granted their own guild and split from the Grocer's guild to form The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.

In 1498 the first pharmacopoeia, The Nuovo Receptario, originally written in Italian, was published and became the legal standard in Florence, Italy. It was given official status and was to be used by all apothecaries in Florence. It was a collaboration of the guild of apothecaries and the medical society. They received official advice and guidance from the powerful Dominican monk, Savonarola, who at the time was the political leader of Florence. It was about 50 years before other political jurisdictions started to follow Florence and issue their own pharmacopoeia.

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