April 27

What Is an Apothecary? From Past to Present


When I first heard the term “apothecary”, I struggled to understand it’s meaning and what it had to do with being a Medical Herbalist / Phytotherapy.  You see, I had just returned to school to get trained in the skills of Herbalist/Phytotherapy. I had been using herbs intuitively all my life and now was receiving formal, scientific education to help me understand the science behind herbalism. But what exactly is an apothecary?

Apothecaries have been around for thousands of years but were especially popular in medieval times. They eventually faded out in the 19th century as changes in medicine and the introduction of penicillin came about.

Today, you’ll still see and hear of apothecary shops, although they’ve transformed into modern times. With more interest in holistic health and natural health options, apothecaries once again have an important place in society.

Here’s a closer look at what they used to be and what they are today.

What Is an Apothecary?

So, what is an apothecary? The word apothecary is derived from the ancient Greek language. It is the identification of an establishment or individual who prepared and sold medicines. In this way, an apothecary is the old form of a pharmacy and was usually operated by a medical doctor who were also herbalist and understood the ways of nature.

Here’s a closer look at each meaning.

Apothecary the Person

Doctors and pharmacist, referred as apothecaries were trained and skilled at making, compounding, and dosing a wide variety of medicines, usually and often formulated from local herbs and other natural ingredients grown in their local gardens.

In early history, people would trust the apothecary with their illness, injury, or imbalances. The apothecary would then make a diagnosis and formulated a remedy to be ready the same day.

The journey to apprenticing into the trade of apothecaries took many years from observing and working with a seasoned and already established apothecary. The apprentice had to learn to correctly identifying and harvesting plants, making medicinal preparations, formulating the correct dosages for different people, diagnosing symptoms, etc.

With the dominance of our modern medical system, many believes that herbalists are not qualified for their profession, but the opposite is true especially when you work with nature.

Many earlier herbalists studied for years and kept up with advances in medicine and science. (1) Guilds were formed in England and other countries to keep high standards for the purity of remedies and ingredients sold.

At one point in time, the local apothecary was a vital piece of every town and city.

Apothecary the Shop

“Apothecary” also came to refer to the shops owned by apothecaries where medicines and other products were prepared and dispensed to local patrons.

You could go to the shop and buy prepared medicines but also spices, herbs, cosmetics, dyes, soaps, etc., just like modern pharmacies where you find products available on shelves.

Medicinal herbs, spices, and products made available were of natural origin, often freshly prepared from local harvest. Local merchant had no need to grow or prepare everything themselves. It was a win/win situation for both merchant and consumers.

Evolution of Apothecaries

Both the Apothecaries shop and the profession evolved with the times to support needs of the world. More than ever, the resurgence of apothecaries becoming important in maintaining wellness for oneself.

In the early 1700s, apothecaries began to be available in hospitals and other medical centers. This began the shifts of roles from apothecaries operating now as a pharmacist-only-role to previously as combined doctors and pharmacists.

After this shift, the focus moved towards making preparation from plant and chemical constituents vs. using plant material in their whole. Synthetic extracts started to be more and more available. Samuel Thomson introduced patented remedies/medicine in the 1800s and developed an herbal medicine system that he shared with others in his travels. Since medicine could be purchased via a travel salesman, the apothecaries were less needed and vanished for a while.

Decline of Apothecaries

Many traditional apothecaries disappeared and transformed into what is known as pharmacies that dispensed herbal remedies formulated from isolated compound synthetically prepared in a lab and standardized and pre-package as the allopathic medicine that many resorts too today when ill.

However, as a professional medical herbalist, I still believe in the plant material in their original live state to be the highest form of medicine that assist the human body remain in allostasis and alive. It is my hope that those feeling the inner call to work with plants will search for local apothecaries.

Modern Apothecaries

Today, the name “apothecary” has transformed into a shop that provides herbal remedies made from raw materials offered as tea or decoction, capsules or powders, and alcohol extracts and tinctures, a place where you can buy herbs, loose tea, herbal preparations, natural products, and more. There are Herbal school teaching the trade of herbalism with the understanding and recognition of the scientific research on how herbs help humans.

With the resurgence of herbal remedies and alternative medicine, Apothecary owners are usually very knowledgeable about herbs and their actions, often formulating their own products.

Purple Tree Healing Centre Apothecary

Purple Tree Healing Center Apothecary is proud to offer quality herbs, herbal formulation, teas, powders and capsules compounded specifically for clients and customers wishing to remain healthy with quality of life.

Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) provides herbalist access to herbs available only to trained professional. Formulas are made to be specific to your needs within a patient-practitioner consultation/appointment whether in person or via an online Zoom platform.

Compounding is generally understood as a process whereby a health care practitioner mixes, or prepares health products (natural, medicinal, etc.) to an exact specification tailored to a patient's needs, and in a vehicle desired (cream, lotion, gel, drops, capsules, pellets, etc.). Compounding is generally used to:

  • Provide products unavailable or not readily available in the specifications needed by a practitioner (e.g., strength) to address the specific health concerns, symptoms and needs of a particular patient, and/or to meet the specific requirements of a particular health care practice;
  • Provide products free of preservatives, dyes and chemical allergens; and
  • Prepare palatable flavored dosage forms.”

Not in the area? You can shop at the Purple Tree Healing Center Apothecary for herbal support through any stage of life.


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