Pharmacy has come a long way over the ages.
The first practitioner of the art and science of pharmacy is considered to be the alchemist, physician, astrologer by the name of Paracelsus. This 16th Century practitioner, who received some of his early training as a result of work he did, as he traveled to several different mines in Europe. That means he was exposed to chemistry as it was known then, or more accurately “alchemy”. Curiously, Paracelsus “the physician” was a practitioner of Homeopathy, not the norm during that era. Homeopathy is based on the premise that “like treats like” and the preparation involves a dilution series as well as a “succusion” step between each dilution. In other words, the dilution was not the potentiating characteristic so much as the succusion of the dilution of the herbal mother tincture in what was usually alcohol in water. This mention of homeopathy is to illustrate the complete unorthodox nature of his approach to medicine, in many ways.
As time moved forward, medicinal agents took on many different forms. We think of medicine today in the form of the blister packaged oral capsule with tiny little “time release pellets”. We had to wait for this form of drug for some time. Between the time of Paracelsus and even the early North American pioneers making their way across the continent, medicines were used in the forms of liquids, powders, insufflations, and salves.
There was period of time when the pharmacist in his apothecary was the focal point of a community. The pharmacist would often be the diagnostician, as well as the preparer of all manner of medicines both for human and for animal. Not every community would afford an adequate living for a doctor even a modest one at that and even when they could, you didn’t see the doctor for minor ailments, minor injuries or even dental problems. So, the pharmacist often became the “healer” and confidant for those health problems, as well as the preparer of medicines when required. The pharmacist may even had his own elixir recipe or healing salve. And yes, he would be bent over a mortar and pestle pulverizing powders, maybe some locally grown herbs and botanicals, preparing medicinal powders, elixirs, inhalations and the like.
For those who might be surprised to hear that the pharmacist might be called on to tend to a sick cow or chicken, consider that at a time in history, the farmer’s cow or horse or pig was a very valuable asset. They represented food, a source of income for many and even transportation. Who better to entrust the care of your next meal but your pharmacist. Remember that small bit of historical trivia the next time you watch your pharmacist working diligently behind the counter. Especially if you see him straining behind a large mortar and pestle!