The study of herbs, plant properties and nature as our medicine cabinet has always interested me. To try and make the The New Savants series as authentic as possible, some of the herbs and plants they use to tip their Sicari darts or use for healing properties are taken from the real world.
Apothecary has its origin in the word apotheca, which means a place where wine, herbs and spices are stored. Originally, an apothecary was considered to be the same as a grocer because they owned retail shops which sold tobacco, in addition to the herbs and formulas that they made up. As early as the 13th century, however, they started to establish their own guilds in Europe, and in 1617 the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was formed in England.
An apothecary was responsible for the making and dispensing of medications. In addition, they gave their customers medical advice, which was based almost exclusively on reason and observations. Illnesses at the time were classified by their symptoms, and diseases such as smallpox and malaria were the most prevalent. There were also many other problems caused by poor hygiene, unsanitary living conditions and ignorance.
An apothecary was trained by becoming an apprentice to one that was already established. During this time they were taught how to diagnose diseases, and the art of making medications based on either their diagnosis or that of the patient’s family physician. Depending on what was ailing the patient, the formulas that they made would be ingested, applied topically or used as aromatherapy.
Many of the recipes that the apothecaries used would have been questionable, by modern standards. In addition to a wide variety of minerals and herbs, such as chamomile, fennel, mint and garlic there was a fair amount of urine, faeces, fat and other human and animal parts that were mixed together to encourage their customers’ recovery. Their main job was to make medications but most apothecaries would supply customers with poisons, if this was specially requested.
When making medications it is very important to ensure that the correct amount of each ingredient is used. To make sure that everything was measured accurately, a special apothecaries system of measurement was developed. This was widely used to weigh small quantities of herbs, and other ingredients, properly.
It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that apothecaries began to be recognized as skilled practitioners. This elevated status continued and even grew for a while and in the 17th and early 18th century, they started increasing the amount of medical care they would undertake and made fewer drugs. This era also supported many of them writing books, which detailed their practice and the skills which were necessary in order to complete the tasks.
The beginning of the 19th century brought significant changes in the medical field, and the structure of physicians and surgeons that we still use today was beginning to be formed. Many of the apothecaries’ duties were taken over by practitioners who were formally educated in these fields. They went back to assuming more pharmaceutical duties and this was the birth of chemists in the UK.