Pharmacies Through the Ages

In 2018, I was fortunate enough to travel to Dubrovnik. My wife was thrilled with the idea, until I made a beeline for the Fransiscan Monastery, and she realised that she had inadvertently joined me on a tour of the oldest pharmacies in Europe. Nestled in amongst that arches and cloisters of the monastery is the Old Pharmacy. Founded 800 years ago, it still serves the residents of Dubrovnik to this day. You can still buy products made using the original recipes, and see the tools they used to make them. I was like a kid in a candy shop. My wife was less enthused.

Why does this matter? Well, pharmacies have been a crucial part of every society dating all the way back to Antiquity. The community relied on them to provide balms and remedies to all of the problems we still face. Today, an online pharmacy is the first major disruptor to this ancient industry, and it is worth taking stock of whence we have come. 

The first record of the pharmacist – or, apothecary as it was known then – dates back 4,600 years to Ancient Babylon. We don’t know a whole lot about what this looked like, beyond a collection of clay tablets which outlines a few symptoms and prescriptions. But considering this is 2000 years before the wheel would burst onto the scene, I find myself oddly proud of my pharmaceutical forefathers whose innovation and creativity was bettering people’s lives thousands of years ago.

Flash forward now to Egypt in 1500 BC. A document known as the Ebers Papyrus outlines 800 prescriptions for different sicknesses, and outlines over 700 different drugs. This piece of papyrus is among the oldest documents from Ancient Egypt, and the best part is that experts suspect that it was copied from documents that were even older. This knowledge could have been hundreds of years old even then! I was told by an Egyptian tour guide in Cairo that this document contained a remedy for a broken leg, which inspired the 1986 hit by The Bangles ‘Walk Like an Egyptian.’ I suspect he was lying to me.

As always, the Chinese were fairly ahead of the curve. Somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, a book called Shen-nung pen ts’ao ching was written, which outlined 365 different prescriptions, which were comprised of various minerals, roots and animals.  Fascinatingly, this ancient book still underpins much of the Eastern approach to traditional medicine. It mentions a herb called Ma huang, which led to the development of ephedrine in modern pharmaceuticals. It was the text which drew our attention to ginseng as an aid for erectile dysfunction. This is alost 1800 years old! Again, I can’t help but be in awe of pharmacists from times gone by.

The Middle East has a rich history of apothecaries though the Middle Ages. There were many shops selling medicines in Baghdad in the 8th century, and when Islam spread to Spain in the 1200s, they brought with them a whole host of medicines to Europe. In some ways, this wildly affects the trajectory of history. During the renaissance, when knowledge began to spread and scientific invention was re-emerging in Europe, they were relying on the work done by Islamic apothecaries for the last few centuries. If they had to start from scratch, would Europe have emerged as the centre of arts and culture? It’s anyone’s guess.

The role of the apothecary was taken over by the nuns in Europe. The biblical mandate to ‘love thy neighbour’ saw these women study the ancient art of mixing balms and creating medicinal drugs for their local communities. When they started to generate a profit from their labour, they used it to buy food for the poor and needy around them. For me, the role of the pharmacist is intrinsically linked to altruism, and that is why Aussie Pharmacy follows in the footsteps of these nuns, by giving money to worthy causes in regional Australia.

As the Enlightenment takes place, we start to see the emergence of ‘modern medicine’ – scientifically based, empirically tested – the split between physician and pharmacist becomes more pronounced. Essentially, the physician was tasked with diagnosing and prescribing, and the pharmacist was responsible for the creation of the remedies. Interestingly, this gave rise to the female pharmacist. Countries in Europe would not allow women to study medicine under the delusion that they were less competent than men (I am always staggered by this. How could these men of reason and intellect be blind to the obvious aptitude of women in this field? Just a century before, it had been dominated by women, and a few centuries later, many of the most intelligent medical professionals I know are female). This prohibition of women as physicians didn’t extend to pharmacists, which at this time was more of a trade than a specialty. As a result, many women learnt this ‘trade’ by working the shops with their husbands, and so began a long standing tradition of inclusivity within pharmacies. 

We find ourselves in 2022. This field of knowledge which has always been innovative and progressive has taken another giant leap forward. The online pharmacy is finding new ways to reach more and more people within its community, and offering them the necessary balms and medicines to help them live their best lives. It’s the same spirit of altruism and innovation. It has just found a new outlet.

It gives me great pride to think of Aussie Pharmacy riding the crest of this wave. I am confident that in a thousand years, when a future pharmacist traces the history of his profession, they will speak about this shift that we are living in today. It is my sincere hope that they will point to the online pharmacy as a game changer in public health.

Do get involved. The game changes with every single individual who decides to take their health into their own hands. In doing so, they take a step closer to living their best life.

All the best,


Senior Pharmacist.


Image Sources by: Freepik

Image Author: @creativeart


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