Women's Business: 17th-Century Female Pharmacists

Early Italian Pharmacy, CHF Collections

Early Italian Pharmacy, Italian School, 17th century; oil on canvas. Gift of Fisher Scientific International.

While researching court documents related to 17th-century apothecaries, Judith S. Woolf found evidence of an unexpected subset of early pharmacists—women. Widows of apothecaries were given an opportunity to enter the pharmacy world by taking over their husbands’ businesses. These endeavors were not without their challenges, as evidenced in the histories Woolf found of three such publicly acknowledged female apothecaries: the Widow Wyncke, Susan Lyon, and Anne Crosse.–Eds.

In early modern England women were expected to learn the basic techniques needed to make home remedies. They followed old traditions of making medicines to treat their extended families, and poor women often sold herbs and medicines to support their families. Some women kept kitchen gardens that included medicinal plants for their own use, while rich housewives provided medical assistance to people on their estates. Wealthy households even had separate stillrooms in which women prepared distillates. Apothecaries, in turn, provided advice and more complex remedies to patients.

King James I gave the apothecaries—originally members of the Guild of Grocers—their own guild in 1618, called the Company of Apothecaries. According to their charter, men from the apothecaries’ guild had the right to “go and enter into any Shop . . . House or . . . Cellar . . . of any Persons whatsoever, using or exercising the Art or Mystery of Apothecaries, or any part thereof, within the city of London . . . or within Seven Miles of the same city” to decide if the medicines made were acceptable.

Apothecaries were much more than drug retailers in early modern England—they prepared medicines from materials like herbs and minerals. Candied rose petals, Oyl of Sulphur, cherry syrup, alum, almond oil, Aurum Potabile (made with gold), peppermint schnapps, and dried earthworms all found their way into prescriptions of that era.

An apothecary’s apprenticeship training included herborizing in “physick” or medicinal gardens and learning techniques necessary to prepare medicines, including fermentation and distillation. They had to be skillful at extracting essences from natural products and compounding them into medicines. Apprentice apothecaries also had to learn Latin to follow the Pharmacopoea Londinensis. At the end of their training, apprentices demonstrated their competence to the Company of Apothecaries. If they did not pass the final oral exam they could not become journeymen. Guild records from around 1620 show that any apprentice found not competent could be “dismissed until he can give better proof of his sufficiencie to exercise the Arte of an Apothecarie.”

In the 17th century wives could not own property, but qualified widows were allowed to run family businesses. Wives of apothecaries shared the work in their husbands’ shops, and the years a wife or daughter spent working in the family apothecary shop were considered an apprenticeship by the Company of Apothecaries. Susan Lyon, Anne Crosse, and the Widow Wyncke were three such widows who ran their family apothecary shops in 17th-century England. Most women of this era left few records about their lives. Legal documents listed the occupations of men and the marital status of women. Usually women with occupations were simply described as spinsters, wives, or widows. Unless a woman experienced some unusual difficulty her career would have gone unrecorded.