Worship Society of Apothecaries

Apothecaries' Hall Black Friars Lane, London

Apothecaries’ Hall
Black Friars Lane, London

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London is one of the livery companies of the City of London. It is one of the largest livery companies (with over 1,600 members in 2012) and ranks 58th in their order of precedence.

The society is a member of the London Museums of Health & Medicine and its guild church is the Church of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe. The society’s modern roles include educational, social, ceremonial and charitable activities, in addition to supporting the City of London, its governance and the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

Prior to the foundation of the society in 1617, London apothecaries were in the Grocers’ Company (founded 1345), and before that they were members of the Guild of Pepperers (founded before 1180).

Having sought autonomy for many years, the apothecaries finally separated from the Grocers’ Company in 1617 when they were granted a Royal Charter by James I. During the remainder of the 17th Century its members (including Nicholas Culpeper) challenged the College of Physicians members’ monopoly of practising medicine. In 1704, the House of Lords overturned a ruling of the Queen’s Bench in the “Rose Case,” which effectively gave apothecaries the right to practice medicine, meaning that apothecaries may be viewed as forerunners of present-day general (medical) practitioners or family physicians.

The Apothecaries Act 1815 granted the society the power to licence and regulate medical practitioners throughout England and Wales. The society retained this role as a member of the United Examining Board until 1999; the society was capable of licensing doctors until 2008, but did not do so since the dissolution of the United Examining Board.

Notable people who qualified in medicine as a Licentiate of the Society (LSA) include John Keats (1816), Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1865, thereby becoming the first openly female recipient of a UK medical qualification) and Ronald Ross (1881).

Motto and arms
Described in the society’s Grant of Arms of 1617 as “the inventor of physic” [i.e. medicine], Apollo is depicted in the coat of arms overcoming pestilence which is represented heraldically by a wyvern.

The society motto is Opiferque Per Orbem Dicor, a Latin part-quotation from Ovid referring to the Greek deity Apollo, meaning: “and throughout the world I am called the bringer of help.” The full quotation, from the first book of Metamorphoses (Daphne and Apollo), puts the motto in context and makes it particularly relevant to apothecaries:
Inventum medicina meum est, opiferque per orbem dicor, et herbarum subiecta potentia nobis. Hei mihi, quod nullis amor est medicabilis herbis; nec prosunt domino, quae prosunt omnibus, artes!
(Medicine is my invention, throughout the world I am called the bringer of help, and the power of herbs is under my control [but] alas for me, love cannot be cured by herbs, and the skills which help everyone else do not benefit their master.)

The society’s crest is a rhinoceros, and the supporters are golden unicorns.

Unusually, the illustration in the original grant of arms accords the Society the helmet of a Peer (noble), and the text specifies the red/white mantling usually associated with a Peer. The use of the term ‘Society’ rather than the usual ‘Company’ is traditional, though – the grant itself uses both terms, as do grants to other City companies.

Shield and Crest of the Apothecaries over the south gate of the Chelsea Physic Garden

Shield and Crest of the Apothecaries
over the south gate of the Chelsea Physic Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden
The Society of Apothecaries is perhaps best known generally for its foundation in 1673 of the Chelsea Physic Garden, London, one of Europe’s oldest botanical gardens and the second oldest in Britain. After Sir Hans Sloane granted the society rights to the manor of Chelsea, the four-acre (16,000 m²) garden became the richest collection of medicinal plants in Europe under the direction of Philip Miller. Its seed exchange programme, originally initiated with the Leiden Botanical Garden, led to cotton being planted for the first time in the Colony of Georgia.

Jealously guarded during the Society’s tenure, in 1983 the garden became a charity and opened to the public for the first time.

Education – History and Qualifications
In addition to providing qualifications in, and regulation of, the trade of the apothecary and dispensing, the Apothecaries’ Society offered primary medical qualifications until 1999. This began with the 1815 Medical Act, followed by further Acts of Parliament. The title of the original licence was Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA). When the General Medical Council was established by statute in 1858, the LSA became a registrable qualification. From 1885, the examination included surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology, which were required by law following the Medical Act of 1886, and in 1907 the title was altered by parliamentary act to LMSSA to reflect this. The society ceased to be recognised by the General Medical Council as a provider of primary medical qualifications in 2008, although it had not issued any licences as a member of the United Examining Board since 1999.

Since 1928, when the Society instituted the first postgraduate qualification in Midwifery (the Mastery of Midwifery, MMSA), the Apothecaries have pioneered 15 further such diplomas in specialist subjects not offered by the Universities, Medical Royal Colleges or any other medical body.

The Apothecaries currently award postgraduate diplomas in the following fields (with their year of establishment):
Medical jurisprudence (1962)
History of medicine (1970)
GenitoUrinary medicine (1973)
Philosophy of medicine (1978)
Medical care of catastrophes (1994)
Forensic medical sciences (1998)
HIV medicine (2002)
Forensic and clinical aspects of sexual assault (2009)

In addition to this professional qualifications role, the present-day society also sponsors lecturers at UK Medical Schools, and organises courses and public lectures through two faculties: the ‘Faculty of the History and Philosophy of Medicine and Pharmacy’ and the ‘Faculty of Conflict and Catastrophe Medicine.’

Apothecaries’ Hall

Apothecaries' Hall courtyard in 1831

Apothecaries’ Hall courtyard in 1831

The society is based at Apothecaries’ Hall in Blackfriars. The building, originally part of the Dominican priory of Black Friars, was called Cobham House prior to its purchase by the society in 1632.

The original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A new hall was built on the same site and completed in 1672 to the design of Edward Jerman; an “Elaboratory” was included at this time for the first ever large-scale manufacture of drugs. From then until 1922, the Society manufactured medicinal and pharmaceutical products at their Hall, and sold some of their products from a retail outlet opening onto Water Lane (now Blackfriars Lane). Much of the manufactured drugs were to supply clients of the Society which included the Navy, the Army, the East India Company and the Crown Colonies.

A major restoration and (external) building programme was carried out in the 1780s. Although the hall underwent further redevelopment in the 1980s, its appearance has altered little since the late-eighteenth century.

Apothecaries’ Hall is the oldest extant livery hall in the City of London, with the first-floor structure and arrangement of the Great Hall, Court Room and Parlour remaining as rebuilt between 1668 and 1670.

Members and Structure
At least 85% of the membership of the society are required to be medical practitioners. In fact, the membership is predominantly made up of prominent physicians (rather than surgeons who, for historical reasons, are more likely to be members of the Barbers’ Company).

The members of the society are (in descending rank):
The Master
Two Wardens (The “Senior Warden” and “Junior Warden”)
21 Assistants (and a small number of Assistants emeriti)
Liverymen (Full members of the society, all of whom are Freemen of the City of London. Liverymen of the society are in two classes, “guardant” and “couchant”)
Freemen of the society (most of whom are “Yeomen”)
Apprentices (not technically members of the society)

The Master, Wardens and Assistants together constitute the “Court,” which is the governing body of the society.

Members of the Court wear dark-blue gowns with gold facings. The Master and Wardens have chains of office and particular traditional robes – the Master’s trimmed with musquash, the wardens’ trimmed with fitch. Liverymen are “clothed” upon attaining that rank (modernly with a solicitor’s-type black robe and a blue/cream epitoge).

The society’s only truly academic dress were:
for the Master of Midwifery qualification (MMSA – ceased in 1963), a light-blue lambskin-faced robe with an blue/white epitoge
a dark-blue gown with blue/gold facings for the Licentiate (LMSSA)

The chief operating officer of the society is its Clerk and the hall is managed by the Beadle.
The Clerk wears a black solicitor’s gown trimmed with blue ribbons, and the Beadle’s robe is decorated with miniature hanging rosettes.

Other roles in the society include the Dean (a senior member who oversees the educational functions) and the Registrar (who directs the examinations’ department).


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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