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Apothecary // is a historical name for a medical professional who formulates and dispenses materia medica to physicians, surgeons and patients — a role now served by a pharmacist (or a chemist or dispensing chemist) and some caregivers.
In addition to pharmacy responsibilities, the apothecary offered general medical advice and a range of services that are now performed solely by other specialist practitioners, such as surgery and midwifery. Apothecaries often operated through a retail shop which, in addition to ingredients for medicines, sold tobacco and patent medicines.
In its investigation of herbal and chemical ingredients, the work of an apothecary may be regarded as a precursor of the modern sciences of chemistry and pharmacology, prior to the formulation of the scientific method.
Apothecary, as a profession, could date back to 2600 BC to ancient Babylon, which provides one of the earliest records of the practice of the apothecary. Clay tablets were found with medical texts recording symptoms, the prescriptions, and the directions for compounding it. The Papyrus Ebers from ancient Egypt, written around 1500 B.C., contain a collection of more than 800 prescriptions, or ancient recipes for the apothecaries of the time. It mentions over 700 different drugs.
According to Sharif Kaf al-Ghazal, Jolyn Carter, and S. Hadzovic, apothecary shops existed during the Middle Ages in Baghdad by Islamic pharmacists in 754 during the Abbasid Caliphate, or Islamic Golden Age. Apothecaries were also active in Islamic Spain by the 11th century.
By the end of the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400) was mentioning an English apothecary in the Canterbury Tales, specifically "The Nun's Priest's Tale" as Pertelote speaks to Chauntecleer (lines 181–184):
. . . and for ye shal nat tarie,
Though in this toun is noon apothecarie,
I shal myself to herbes techen yow,
That shul been for youre hele and for youre prow.
. . . and you should not linger,
Though, in this town there is no apothecary,
I will teach you about herbs myself,
That will be for your health and for your pride.
From the 15th century to the 16th century, the apothecary gained the status of a skilled practitioner, but by the end of the 19th century, the medical professions had taken on their current institutional form, with defined roles for physicians and surgeons, and the role of the apothecary was more narrowly conceived as that of pharmacist (dispensing chemist in British English).
In England, the apothecaries merited their own livery company, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, founded in 1617. Its roots, however, go back much earlier to the Guild of Pepperers formed in London in 1180. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain when she passed the Society's examination in 1865.
Apothecaries used their own measurement system, the apothecaries' system, to provide precise weighing of small quantities. Apothecaries also were known to accept special requests for viles and poisons.