Alchemy under Capricorn

The Australian Country Hospital Heritage Association's collection spans the full range of services needed to provide health care to early communities. The chemist or pharmacist was one of the key providers. In this story, one of our former members, the Late Dr Barry Bryant OAM, a long-serving community and hospital pharmacist and educator, discusses early pharmaceutical service provision in our region and writes about a number of items in the ACHHA collection for which he was the 'guardian and curator'. Barry wrote ...

The history of early local Rockhampton pharmacists involved gold fever, shipwrecks, dedication and hard work, pathos and humour. It continued a centuries-old tradition of plant-based treatments, leading ultimately through the transition to modern day laboratory-produced synthetic cures for a range of human ailments.

Anecdotal material has been steadily accumulating for a number of our early pharmacists: the Rutherfords were the first to provide pharmacy services to Rockhampton at the time of the Canoona gold rush in 1858; E R Row (from 1868) was the founder of Row and Co; Tom Ingham settled in this town in 1876 after his third shipwreck adventure searching for gold in New Guinea and later on the Palmer River between 1872 and 1874, opening his 'Medical Hall' on the corner of East and William Streets. E N Symons (later E N Symons and Son) bought Tom's establishment in 1897 after emigrating from Cornwell and completing his apprenticeship in Gympie during that city's gold rush when money was so short at times that his wages were sometimes paid in biscuits! The Friendly Societies dispensary was established in 1893 on the present site of Green Brothers.

A number of the earlier pharmacists were all things to all people, ministering to ailments from cholera to corns, mumps to molars, (literally, as some including Messrs Blake, D'Weske, Row and Ingham were also registered dentists in the 1890s and early 1900s).

In the early days of the Colony of Queensland, no statutory qualifications as we now know them, were required to practise as a chemist and druggist. In Queensland in 1861, a Medical Act was passed which provided for the registration of chemists and the first chemists were registered in that year. The professional body, The Pharmaceutical Society of Queensland, was founded in 1880 with thirty-nine members out of a total of sixty chemists in Queensland. Its parent body, the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had been founded in 1841 and Incorporated by Royal Charter in 1843.

Inspection of the Register of Chemists and Druggists, Queensland for 1885 shows a wide range of qualifications then acceptable for registration, a selection of which is shown here: Testimonials from Dr Yorke; Associate of the Pharmaceutical Society of England; Owned Pharmacy at Rockhampton (a case of the cart before the horse?); Testimonials from Dr Lawrence, Grenadier Guards; Testimonials from Dr W Armstrong & Dr C I Anderson, & Certificate of Mr Joseph Wonderly; Ordinary course of Chemistry at Rockhampton; Dispenser of Medicine 1855; Apothecary of the Forces; Captain, Army Hospital Corps 1873; Testimonial from the Director-General Army Medical Department 1874; Certificate from Apothecaries Hall Dublin 1873. This is a somewhat arbitrary collection of qualifications to modern eyes.

A College of Pharmacy was established in Brisbane in the 1880s leading to effective pharmaceutical training in chemistry, botany and compounding. In the early years of its existence, the College even taught Assaying and Mineralogy in association with the Central Technical College, Brisbane.

Pharmacy History,pharmacists history, pharmacy equipment history

The old apprenticeship system was evidently serious business and not conducive to idleness as an old set of Apprenticeship Articles from 1888 makes abundantly clear. The poor apprentice is strictly enjoined that 'he shall not haunt taverns, inns or ale houses, he shall not play at cards, dice, or tables, or any other unlawful games, neither shall he contract Matrimony'. All these restrictions for fifteen shillings per week wages - chickenfeed or in some cases biscuits (see above).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it became the proud claim of these new era professionals that they were pharmaceutical chemists by exam, unlike some older apothecaries "by default" without more formal training or qualifications. The regularly trained pharmacists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as many of those of earlier eras were, of necessity, highly educated in the arts as well as the sciences. Amongst the rarer items in the ACHHA collection is an 1851 copy of the London Pharmacopoeia written in Latin, the universal language of science.

Prescriptions were also written in Latin until relatively recent times. Famous men of science who were originally pharmacists include Robert Boyle (gas laws); Sir Isaac Newton (before the penny dropped); Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (development of the microscope); Scheele and Priestley (discovered oxygen in 1770); Sertürner (discovered morphine); Caventou and Pelletier (discovery of strychnine, quinine, caffeine).

Pharmacists were manufacturing and dispensing specialists. They were responsible for making their own preparations from the crude animal, vegetable and mineral materials which were the source of almost all medicinals until the advent of the organic chemistry revolution of the twentieth century. Indeed the art of compounding and use of drugs in medicine can be traced back to ancient Egyptian papyrus records from 3300 BC, through to the exhortation in Exodus XXX 25 to make .. 'an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary.'.

Pharmacy History,pharmacists history, pharmacy equipment history

From these crude drugs, a variety of liquid or powdered extracts, tinctures and decoctions were prepared from which were compounded patient-specific prescriptions or over-the-counter remedies for the community's ailments. These took the finished form of products such as mixtures, lotions, creams and ointments, bulk or individually wrapped powders for internal use and external dusting powders. The work of the trained pharmacist (and the hapless apprentice) was therefore very labour-intensive. The larger pharmacies in the mid-twentieth century still produced a wide range of such products.

In the material thus far collected for the ACHHA Museum displays are a number of pieces of equipment, considered essential to the pharmacist of yesteryear together with examples of the finished products. Pill machines in a variety of sizes were in constant use producing a range of standard formulas such as Iron Pills, Compound Rhubarb Pills and Mercury Pills.

Pharmacy History, pharmacists history, pharmacy equipment history

To this list could be added an individual prescriber's own preferred formulae, (many of which were used as purgatives)! Numerous traditional glass jars with gold-leaf labels from the 1890s display a cross-section of the therapeutic drugs and herbal extracts used in earlier colonial times, many of which will be familiar to the reader, including liquorice, ginger, opium, belladonna, powdered rhubarb, quinine, not to mention the ubiquitous leeches.

Suppository moulds were used to incorporate a wide range of active ingredients for local (eg haemorrhoids), and systemic effect (eg relief of asthma). Cachet machines operated by hand produced rice-paper cachets to enclose bulky or nasty-tasting powders for internal use. Items in everyday use included pestles and mortars for crushing and mixing drugs, ointment spatulas for producing creams and ointments, conical and cylindrical measures, and dispensing scales.

Pharmacy History, pharmacists history, pharmacy equipment history

A wide selection of early textbooks and Pharmacopoeias from the 19th and early 20th centuries together with a number of early prescription record books are also in the Association's collection. Australian formulary books modified the traditional British formulas in keeping with the new challenges of the colonies and a number of these are also to be found, along with some wartime formularies, developed by necessity when supplies of some old-world crude drugs were in short supply. One war-time formula given to the author turned out on closer inspection to be the Boer War! A treasured early prescription from 1931 ordered hemlock juice as an antispasmodic ingredient in the treatment of an asthma attack. When it is considered that this drug was also the official Greek state poison which was used to kill the philosopher Socrates, it seems nothing much had changed in two thousand years.

Pharmacy History, pharmacists history, pharmacy equipment history

Among the older remedies in the collection which might stir a response amongst some readers' memories are: "Carbolised Eucalyptus" Ointment for Barcoo Rot, 'Pectorine' Cough Mixture, "Tropical Tonic" (containing strychnine), "Zanetta" Hair Restorer, "Coral" Dentifrice Powder, Tom Ingham's Eucalyptus Oil (awarded a gold medal at the Chicago World fair in 1893) and distilled at Tungamull. Above all, running through this material is a fascinating portrayal of social history in Rockhampton over its first one hundred years.

Barry Bryant