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.

Widow Wyncke

One of these women, referred to in legal documents as “Widow Wynke,” was the wife of Tobias Wyncke, elected in 1618 as Beadle of the Company of Apothecaries, a position he held until his death in 1628. In appreciation for the work of her late husband, the guild gave Widow Wyncke £2. (A journeyman apothecary might be paid £8 to £10 per year.) The Apothecaries also determined that she was qualified to work independently as an apothecary and run the family shop herself. She was approved to train an apprentice named Henry Stirrell. Unfortunately Stirrell abused her with “both words and laying violent hands upon her.” Although he was extremely contrite, the Apothecaries told Stirrell he could only stay with his mistress “till he could get another convenient service.” This also gave Widow Wyncke time to find a more respectful apprentice to help her in the shop.

An apprentice could be quickly trained to help with some of the more repetitive types of work such as grinding tutty (crude zinc oxide) to a fine powder. Many medicines were prepared as powders. One of the more expensive powders called for “Harts horn, Unicorns-horn, Pearls, Ivory of each six grains, beat them into fine pouder; if you mean to keep it, you may increase the quantity analogically.” Essences were extracted from herbs and spices by solvents; an apprentice could help with the filtrations, but weighing ingredients on a pan balance was only ever left to a careful, trustworthy apprentice. Likewise, it required some skill to make sugar syrups without a thermometer in a pot over a wood fire.

The Company of Apothecaries required a seven-year apprenticeship for aspiring apothecaries. Recognizing herbs and assessing their quality took experience and the regular herborizing or botanizing expeditions organized by the Apothecaries provided practice for apprentices. The Apothecaries considered Widow Wynke sufficiently qualified both to prepare medicines and to train an apprentice.