Remedies, Purges and Cures from the Apothecary

 

The word ‘apothecary’ is derived from apotheca, meaning a place where wine, spices and herbs were stored. During the thirteenth century it came into use in this country to describe a person who kept a stock of these commodities, which he sold from his shop or street stall.

By the middle of the seventeenth century apothecaries had become the equivalent of today’s pharmacy, preparing medicines for sale to the public. Tobacco, sugar, spices, confectionary, cosmetics, spiced wines and herbs would all be sold beside remedies, cures and purges.

The apothecary’s shop would be lined with row upon row of shelves densely filled with neatly-labelled jars and bottles, all designed to give the shop gravitas and reassure customers that the apothecary was a man of learning and that his remedies were to be trusted.

In the seventeenth century most physicians still believed that there were four ‘humours’ in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Illness resulted when the humours were out of balance. A more scientific approach began to emerge and doctors questioned traditional ideas. Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood, Thomas Sydenham emphasised the importance of carefully observing patients and their symptoms and then Robert Hooke, using a microscope, described cells in his book Micrographia. In 1661 Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chemist, which laid the foundations of modern chemistry.

Nicholas Culpeper was a botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer. He was the author of The English Physician (1652) and the Complete Herbal (1653). Culpeper studied at Cambridge and afterwards became apprenticed to an apothecary. He married the daughter of a wealthy merchant, which allowed him to set up a pharmacy in Spitalfields at a time when medical facilities in London were at breaking point. Arguing that ‘no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician’ and obtaining his herbs from the countryside, Culpeper provided his services for free.  

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