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What Is an Apothecary?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 19 June 2014
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Apothecary is a term that refers to an individual who prepares and sells drugs and medicines. The term was used often in medieval Europe, but is seldom used in modern times. The modern equivalent of an apothecary is a pharmacist, one who takes orders for medications, decides if they are appropriate, and sells them to those who need them. Apothecaries, however, served somewhat larger roles; they often made or prepared the medicines, sold them, and gave medical advice. In some cases, apothecaries were even called upon to act as surgeons or midwives; today, only certified and specialized professionals fill such roles.

An apothecary would traditionally own and operate a shop, from which he would sell a variety of items, medicinal or otherwise. Most of his wares would have typically involved common medicines or ingredients for common herbal remedies and medicines. Sometimes, apothecaries were also known to sell various patent medicines, or medicines of questionable use or validity. These medicines were marketed as cures for all sorts of ailments, but they seldom actually cured anything and were often little more than colored or flavored water. An apothecary could typically market such false cures with relative impunity as the general body of medical knowledge at the time was very limited, and people had no means to recognize the fraud.

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Midwifery and medicine preparation made up only a few of the many and varied roles of the apothecary, not all of which were legal. An apothecary tended to serve a significant social role; when one suffered any kind of ailment, he would often consult the apothecary first. Sometimes, they were even called upon to perform illicit and dangerous tasks, such as preparing deadly poisons or other dangerous concoctions. Over time, apothecaries became steadily more legitimate and standardized; their services became more reliable. This trend continued until the 19th century, at which time a greater degree of specialization occurred and apothecaries were widely replaced with a variety of specialists.

It should be noted that the term apothecary can also refer to a type of furniture with many drawers. It is a large chest of drawers with many square chests arranged in a square or rectangle. Apothecaries vary greatly in size; some are very small and are only suitable for storing small trinkets, while others can be quite large and can be used to store clothing or other larger items. They tend to stand on four short legs and have a flat surface on top, upon which objects and decorations can be placed.

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Discuss this Article

anon354181
Post 10

What is the bible definition for apothecary?

sweetPeas
Post 9

In the medieval times, there were also apothecaries who worked out of their homes. They went out in the woods and collected what they needed, then mixed their concoctions and often times went to the sick client's home to treat them.

These were often women and were sometimes looked at as witches. They acted as midwives, helping with births. In a book I read about these women, they would also perform abortions, which was highly frowned upon.

Esther11
Post 8

Back in the medieval days, I think a lot of people put their utmost trust in the apothecary's advice and medicines to cure whatever ailed them.

They knew so little about the human body, sickness or bodily discomfort. But herbal remedies had been passed down through the generations, and some may have worked, or the placebo effect made them feel better ( mind over matter).

The apothecary shop must have been an interesting place to go and there were probably lots of hypochondriacs who came in regularly.I imagine that the apothecary cabinets we see today were like the ones used in the shops. Probably the little drawers held herbs, berries, and leaves that the apothecary used.

Azuza
Post 7

@SZapper - Your herbalist sounds nice, but I'm glad that apothecaries have pretty much been replaced by doctors. I'm sure your herbalist is reputable, but remember apothecaries of old often sold "medicines" that didn't do anything!

I think it's interesting too that medicine is much more specialized in modern times. For instance, now we have doctors, pharmacist, and ob/gyn's to perform all the duties that an apothecary used to do!

SZapper
Post 6

I go to an herbalist every now and then, and I think she is the modern equivalent of an apothecary. She actually recently started producing her own brand of herbal medicine, just like an apothecary!

One thing I really like about her brand is that she sells it for much cheaper than what herbal medicines usually sell for. And of course she gives great personalized service and can advise you on which herbs are best to take for what condition.

Of course I go to the doctor for really serious problems, but herbal medicine works great for me for less serious issues.

seag47
Post 5

I have some glass apothecary jars that were made like those that apothecaries used to store their herbs long ago. They are tall and cylindrical with a base like that of a wine glass and a glass ball separating the base from the jar. The lid looks like the top of a baby bottle.

They are completely clear. I use them to place decorative objects in, like sand and seashells. I have some seashell and flower shaped soaps that I received as Christmas gifts, and I place these in one of the jars instead of using them. They are just too pretty to wash with, and they look so nice in the jar.

wavy58
Post 4

It must have been rough back in the day to have to depend on an apothecary for cures, especially when some had gained the reputation of selling worthless medicines. I suppose people really didn’t have a choice, though. Where else were they going to get remedies?

It really must have been difficult to depend on the services of an apothecary when someone had a sick child. They had to trust that this stranger knew what he was doing and wasn’t further harming their kid. I imagine that people back then placed much blind faith in apothecaries, because regular people knew next to nothing about health care.

SailorJerry
Post 3

@Mae82 and drtroubles - It sounds like the places you visit are really pharmacies (or, I suppose, "chemists" in the UK) that like to use the term "apothecary" to give that old-fashioned feeling.

We used to visit Fredericksburg, Virginia, when I was a kid because my dad was a big Civil War buff. He always wanted to take us around the battlefields. (You can imagine how fascinating I found that!)

But there was one part of the trip that I really enjoyed, and that was the visit to the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop. Hugh Mercer was apparently a Revolutionary War general who also ran an apothecary shop. His "assistants," generally ladies in mobcaps, would explain to visitors that Dr. Mercer was out, but they would be happy to show you around. They would show you all the apothecary bottles and explain what they did (they even had mercury and would delicately hint about using it to treat syphilis).

Then they would take you in the back room to show you the leaches and the amputation equipment. Dr. Mercer, they said, could take off an arm in twenty-eight seconds! That's the part I always looked forward to. Kids can be so bloodthirsty!

Mae82
Post 2

@drtroubles - The apothecary near your home sounds really lovely. While I think the newer drug stores do their jobs, they don't really have the same customer service of apothecary. Though I have been in a larger pharmacy that called itself an apothecary.

In my neighborhood there is actually a wholesale apothecary that lets anyone come in and find some really good deals. I get headaches pretty frequently, so I love being able to buy my medicines in bulk. Regular pharmacies just have too much of a markup on their medicines.

Out of curiosity, has anyone tried the newer online apothecaries? I wonder if they would have as good quality drugs.

drtroubles
Post 1

There is a lovely apothecary near my home that not only sells medicines but also a good variety of convenience store goods. I actually prefer the apothecary to larger pharmacies because it seems to have an old world vibe. The interior design was intentionally made to look as old as possible.

The owners of our local, small apothecary really like stocking their shelves with ancient-looking apothecary jars and I am positive they do it just for the aesthetics. I have never actually seen the owners of our apothecary pull out anything and actually use it. Anyways, it is just a good look and I love the personalized service.

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