What Is An Apothecary? A Quick History Of Organic Pharmacies

What is an apothecary? Here's what to know about these organic pharmacies with deep historic roots, and what kinds of benefits they bring in modern times.

September 14, 2018
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Many people looking into holistic medicine come upon a mention of apothecaries without knowing what they are. What is an apothecary? Learn all about it here.

The job of your local pharmacy is rooted in the ancient medical profession of an apothecary. Even today, some pharmacies still market themselves as an apothecary.

This article provides a quick history of organic pharmacies and an answer to the question, what is an apothecary?

Hospitals are essential to society, just like doctors. As health-care innovations drive the development of high-tech future hospitals, you can forget where the modern hospital came from. Before the world of integrated care, patients depended on their local apothecary.

What is an Apothecary?

The word apothecary is derived from the ancient Greek language. It is the identification of an establishment or individual who dispenses medical materials. In this way, an apothecary is the old form of a pharmacy.

Apothecaries exist as the predecessor to a modern day pharmacy, like CVS or Walgreens. An apothecary serves to dispense and formulate medical materials and prescriptions, which is a lot like a pharmacy. But, apothecaries specialized in the herbal science and chemistry that is left up to pharmaceutical companies, nowadays.

Apothecary vs. Pharmacy

Apothecaries are the common ancestor of the modern-day pharmacy, hospital, and liquor store. Unlike modern pharmacies, an apothecary performs the distilling, mixing, and dosing of medications and liquors, in-house.

Like a pharmacy, apothecaries offer medications, like insulin and morphine. But times have changed, and most people have prescribed name-brand medications that are supplied by pharmacies, but not manufactured there.

A pharmacy is a location that houses a pharmacist. An apothecary is a term of professional distinction, like a doctor or dentist. An apothecary is a person. The location of an Apothecaries business would be called, the apothecary.

When it comes to finding a local apothecary or pharmacy in your area, it’s all about knowing what you are looking for, and where to search for it. Google Local is always a great place to start, but there are also many niche specific sites that can help with this as well. For example, CBDHempFinder.com is great for finding CBD related products, while RXLocal.com is perfect for finding local pharmacies in your area.

Again, this all ties into knowing what you are looking for and where you are headed. We highlight the differences between the two in the next section.

The Difference Between an Apothecary and a Pharmacy

Apothecaries sold the ingredients to homemade remedies, prepared goods, and herbal medicines, as well as preparing them. When tobacco was still used in medical treatment, it was sold through an apothecary.

The mainstay of an apothecary, in addition to offering medical advice and treatments to the general public, is the custom mixing of drugs. Unlike a modern pharmacy, an apothecary can mix multiple medications together as requested by a physician.

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But, until the 19th century, apothecaries did much more. Before modern medicine, apothecaries performed the duties of a general physician, surgeon, physiatrists, dentist, obstetrician, optometrist, and more. They offered products, like alcohol and drugs, that require an expert or chemist to manufacture.

Once the world-market became involved in pharmaceutical products the apothecary, as it was known, began declining. Today, the only resemblance to an apothecary is found in pharmacies which offer a public clinic.

For years, CVS and Walgreens pharmacies did not offer medical screenings or services apart from the retail of prescription pharmaceuticals. The integration of public clinics, such as the CVS MinuteClinic, is an example of the integration of apothecary services in a pharmacy.

A Quick History of Apothecaries: the Original Organic Pharmacy

Pharmacies, general practitioners, and surgeons, all are rooted to the ancient apothecary. Before specialization of medical treatments, apothecaries treated everything, however, the global market began to alter the course of apothecary medicine in the 1200’s.

Before they started selling medical supplies to doctors, the apothecary was the sole supplier of herbal, physical, and chemical medical treatments.

The medical profession, as we see it today, is the influence of an ancient tradition, dating back to the earliest civilizations of mankind.

Ancient Babylon and Egypt

The earliest incarnation of an apothecary was synonymous with a modern doctor. The ancient Babylonians recorded the symptoms and prescribed treatment of medical patients, as far back as 2600 BC.

The oldest and most complete archive of ancient apothecary medicine is found in the Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Ebers. Written around 1500 BC, the Papyrus Ebers contains over 800 medical recipes and treatments, which are the ancestor to modern medicine.

Ancient China

By the year 200 CE, Ancient China had grown into a vast empire which covered north-east, central, and South Asia. Through their conquest, the Ancient Chinese compiled and published the Shen-nung pen ts’ao ching.

This book is the foundation of ancient eastern apothecary medicine, as well, as modern holistic medicine. The book documents over 360 treatments for disease and ailment. The book classifies medicinal herbs and organic drugs into three classes: Upper Herbs, Middle Herbs, and Low Herbs.

Upper herbs comprised 120 substances found in nature which are harmless to humans, such as ginseng, orange, cinnamon, and cannabis.

The 120 middle herbs, or common herbs, have medicinal properties that are strong enough to be toxic in excess. They include substances, like ginger, poppy, peony, and cucumber.

Low herbs comprise 125 natural substances which have profound and dangerous consequences when consumed improperly. These include substances that are toxic in excesses, such as peach and rhubarb.

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Golden Age of Islam

In the Middle Ages, the Islamic world made huge strides in the art of medicine. Pharmacies, hospitals, and apothecaries existed in Baghdad over 500 years before the first apothecaries were established in England.

From 700 CE through the 12th century, Islam was home to major medical innovations and breakthroughs, the likes of which would not be re-discovered for another millennium.

Islamic medical study was a direct product of the Islamic church for nearly 600 years, and throughout the 12th century Renaissance Islamic medical knowledge spread throughout eastern and western Europe.

Among the teachings spread throughout Europe in this time was that of Hippocrates, which are still the foundation of modern medical training.

Italian Renaissance

Islamic Apothecary teachings gained widespread practice through Italy, during the Italian Renaissance. From the 14th to the 17th century, Islamic medical practices and teachings became adopted by Christian Nuns.

As nuns expanded the knowledge and practice of apothecary medicine in Italian convents, they gained reputability in the medical community.

By the early 1600’s, England established a country-wide Society of Apothecaries. The Italian Renaissance played a significant role in the expansion of apothecaries to the western world.

By the end of the Renaissance, apothecaries of many types were common throughout western Europe and England. Individuals could become trained as an Apothecary-surgeon, herbalist, druggist, or physician.

Age of Enlightenment

By the beginning of the Enlightenment, in the early 1700’s, apothecaries were the most common practitioners of medical and pharmaceutical services. The Age of Enlightenment brought substantial improvements to the institution of medicine, across the globe.

The Islamic standard of medicine, which had endured for the better half of a millennium, served as the backbone of the medical revolution to come.

The Enlightenment brought an intellectual revolution, along with sweeping improvements in technology and scientific understanding. By the early 1800’s, chemists became the primary source of medical retail. With the rise of electricity, machinery, and industrialization the Apothecary was slowly phased-out.

Final Thoughts

The industrial revolution brought a massive shift, from local organic pharmacies and apothecaries to mass-production and distribution. Some hospitals still have their own apothecary for mixing drugs, in-house.

But for a few remaining establishments, the apothecary as it was once known is all but extinct. Today, you can get your prescription drugs delivered to your front door every month.

What the medical industry has gained in efficiency, it has lost in the personal patient-contact offered by an apothecary.

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