Pharmacist in Society

Series on Health
July 1964

Sign Up for OHE Updates

Why not sign up for our email updates? Around once or twice a week we will send you a round-up of the latest news, events and publications from OHE.

I'm already signed up    No thanks

A feature of the development of Britain in the 19th century was the emergence of the organised professions. In medicine, law, engineering and accountancy, for example, there was the introduction or extension of formal training and minimum standards of admission. Professional qualifications restricted entry to those who had acquired sufficient skill and knowledge. Codes of practice were laid down by the professional bodies, who also became involved in questions of status and remuneration. However, within this broad pattern, there were substantial differences between individual professions.

In the case of the barristers, who were educated, admitted and disciplined by the Inns of Court, law-like the Church had long been recognised as a profession. However, in the case of the articled clerks, who later became the solicitors, it was not until 1833 that their professional body, the Law Society, was formed, and it was 1860 before the Solicitors' Act required them to have a comprehensive education. But both the Inns of Court and the Law Society have remained strong and cohesive, and exercised strict control over all who enter the legal profession.

Accountants and engineers, on the other hand, have emerged as more diverse professions. Neither the Institute of Civil Engineers, founded in 1818, nor the Institute of Accountants, founded in 1862, grew up to represent the whole of their professions. As each new branch of engineering emerged, new institutions were setup; by 1872 there were separate professional bodies for mechanical engineers, naval architects, electrical engineers and mine managers. This trend has continue in to the present century, as aeronautical engineers, production engineers and radio engineers, for example, have each setup their own Institute or Institution. In the case of accountants there grew up a demand for professional qualifications which could be obtained after more specialised or less protracted training than that of the Chartered Accountant. This demand was catered for by the formation of various professional bodies such as the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants.

In essence, the function of a professional organisation should be to prevent any excessive or unscrupulous exploitation of the profession's activities, which would be detrimental to the profession or to the community as a whole. All professional men and women must earn their living; and there is no reason why they should not have an economic motive to work harder and better. But where this economic motive is in conflict with the interests of the community, professional standards must be established to reconcile this conflict. The member of a profession cannot merely seek to maximise his economic gains regardless of other considerations. Nowhere is this principle more important than in the many professions concerned with the health of the nation-the dentists, doctors, midwives, nurses and pharmacists, for example.

The professional status of the physician has long been acknowledged; for centuries medicine has been one of the superior faculties of the older universities. The barber surgeons were much later in establishing that status, and the professions of medicine and surgery were not consolidated until the statutory formation of the General Medical Council in 1858. Since then, this Council has set professional standards and granted licences to practice. The early history of organised pharmacy in Britain is intertwined with the history of medical practice. The members of the Society of Apothecaries, which was founded in 1617, not only dispensed for the physicians, but themselves recommended and prescribed medicines. Despite protests from the physicians, the apothecaries 'legal right to give medical advice was upheld in a House of Lords' judgement in 1703 and, under the Apothecaries Act of 1815, they were allowed to charge for advice as well as for the medicines they dispensed.

Parallel with this development of the apothecaries as a separate body of medical practitioners, there grew up a class of persons known as 'chemists and druggists' who prepared and sold medicines to the public and competed with the apothecaries in dispensing. The 1815 Act acknowledged the existence of the chemists and druggists, and as the apothecaries progressively assumed the role of general medical practitioners, so the chemists and druggists took over their role as dispensers of physicians' prescriptions. The foundation of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1841 gave coherence and direction to this new class of dispensers. The Society was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1843, and by a series of statutes it was given responsibility for the training, examination, registration and discipline of chemists and druggists, as well as for the enforcement of legislation controlling the sale of poisons. In effect, the chemists and druggists had become subject to statutory registration seventeen years earlier than the doctors. Membership of the Pharmaceutical Society remained voluntary until 1933. Thereafter, all registered chemists and druggists became members of the Society by virtue of registration. Since the Pharmacy Act of 1954 'registered pharmaceutical chemist' is their official description though 'pharmacist' is most commonly used.

The role of the chemists and druggists as dispensers had been further recognised by the 1911 National Insurance Act which made them responsible for the supply of most of the medicines for those treated under the Act. This was extended to the whole population by the National Health Service Act of 1946. Originally based largely on apprenticeship, the training of the pharmacist in recent years has become primarily academic. Entrance to the register is by way of a university degree in pharmacy or examination conducted by the Society following a comparable course.

Although the professional status of pharmacists and their exclusive right to sell scheduled poisons dates from the formation of the Pharmaceutical Society in the mid-19th century, pharmacists subsequently faced problems in maintaining and enhancing this status. The retail section of the pharmaceutical profession have found it difficult to exist without subsidy from the profit on other, non-pharmaceutical, activities such as the sale of cameras and cosmetics. By comparison, for example the recently formalised profession of ophthalmic opticians seems to have established a similar professional status morerapidly than have the older established dispensing pharmacists. Only in 1936 did the National Insurance Act make it illegal for an 'optician' to examine the eyes of a panel patient unless he was on a list kept by the Ophthalmic Benefit Aproved Committee. Qualification and registration of opticians was not finally established under a Central Professional Committee until the Second World War.