This post was written by Briony Hudson, Deputy President, Faculty for the History and Philosophy of Medicine and Pharmacy, The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Women’s History in the lead up to History Day 2018. The Society of Apothecaries are delighted to be attending the History Day for the first time this year.

Early history

When the Society received its Royal Charter in 1617, it joined the ranks of City Livery Companies, trade and professional bodies that closely guarded entry into their specialist areas. The Apothecaries had broken away from the Grocers’ Company, finally receiving recognition that their medical skills set them apart from most of the latter’s members. Unsurprisingly, there was no formal recognition of women working as apothecaries either within family businesses or as individuals. But a closer look at the records reveals several women working as medical practitioners and traders in this early period.

Women were an integral part of medical and pharmaceutical family businesses in the past. Credit: Wellcome Collection


Women, as wives and daughters, have always been vital in family businesses, including medicine. Their inferior economic and legal status meant they remained invisible in most surviving sources though as widows they often emerged from the documentary shadows. For example, records held both at the Society of Apothecaries and at the Royal College of Physicians show that, with apprentice Thomas Beedham, Susan Reeve Lyon ran her Dutch husband’s shop after his death,. Her second husband, William Lyon who she married in 1627, was not permitted by the Apothecaries to practise alongside her for two years until he was deemed to have learned the necessary skills from his wife. Although Susan appeared before the College of Physicians in 1631 and was forbidden to make any more medicines, the College did not question her competence or the quality of her medicines. In fact, they stated that she ‘keeps her shop as in her former husbands dayes and serveth phisitions bills … [she] cann and doth make medicines and hath made manye’. Her misdemeanour was supplying medicines to an unlicensed Dutch doctor, not her gender.


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s portrait hangs in Apothecaries’ Hall today. Credit: Society of Apothecaries

Perhaps the most famous woman to enter the Society of Apothecaries was Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson). Having been rejected from several medical schools in her attempt to qualify as a doctor, she turned to the Apothecaries to request permission to sit their Licentiate examination which would enable her to register as a medical practitioner.  A letter to the Royal College of Physicians in 1864 shows that she viewed it as ‘a comparatively easy mode of entrance’ and that she believed instead that ‘in the interest of the public and for the honour of the profession women should be subject to the severest tests open to men’.  However, it was her only available option and she pieced together private unofficial study, lecture attendance at a variety of institutions, and clinical practice at the Middlesex Hospital in order to fulfil the requirements for the exam.

The Apothecaries sought legal advice in an attempt to exclude her from their examination but they were unable to refuse her under the terms of their Charter. She passed the Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) exam on 28 September 1865 and was therefore eligible to practise as a doctor. In 1870 she became the first woman to graduate with a medical degree from Paris University.


Agatha Christie

Another famous woman to pass an Apothecaries’ examination was Agatha Christie, passing the Apothecaries Hall Assistants’ Exam in 1917, clearly providing her with detailed knowledge of poisons that would stand her in good stead for her literary future. This exam was popular with the increasing number of women who were interested in working as dispensers (or pharmacy technicians as we would call them today) but who did not want to undertake the academic rigours of the Pharmaceutical Society exams.  Historian Ellen Jordan has investigated hospital dispensing as a particular area at the end of the 19th century where the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women [SPEW] found it possible to place women in an attempt to open up professions. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson played her part by taking on pupils sponsored by SPEW to train under her (male) dispenser at her St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children, first opened in 1866.

Rose Minshull, one of the first two women to become Pharmaceutical Society members in 1879, worked as the Dispenser at the North Eastern Hospital for Children in London, She wrote ‘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’.


The Apothecaries today

Briony Hudson, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson lecturer 2018, with representatives of the Court. Credit: Lloyd Jones

Today’s qualifications and courses offered by the Apothecaries, including the history of medicine to HIV medicine, accept candidates regardless of gender. The Society has only had one woman Master (its senior official post), Enid Taylor, in 2002-3 and now two women serve on its Court, the governing body.

Researchers interested in the archives and collections held at the Society of Apothecaries, including material relating to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Agatha Christie, can find more information here. For specific enquiries, contact the Archives team

To find out more about the courses, events and examinations organised by the Apothecaries today, visit its website