The Fascinating History of Pharmacists: Before the White Coat

Medications. Drugs. Elixirs. Medicines—and the people who study, prescribe, and administer them—has been a fundamental part of health treatments in every step of time. Today, pharmacy is a profession that requires a special type of personality and expertise.

To be a pharmacist, hard work and dedication go without saying. The job requires interpreting and communicating all the action, uses, side effects and therapeutic roles of drugs to patients and health care providers, requiring a holistic understanding of healthcare-related topics. Physiology, chemistry, and anatomy are just a few of the things pharmacists need to master.

And by no means is hard work on its own enough. A pharmacist is an extremely important link in the treatment chain. He or she is the person who takes the knowledge of a physician and transforms it into actions (medication treatments) the patient must take to get well.

We’re pretty sure that if you’re a pharmacist or a student studying pharmacy, you not only know these things, but they actually describe your passions and tendencies. You have decided to become a pharmacist because you’re not afraid of hard work, and your life becomes meaningful by helping patients getting well with rapidly-changing science behind it.

It is an undeniable fact that a pharmacist, inside his or her pharmacist lab coat, is perceived as a professional with ethics and scientific expertise, and as an individual the community can trust. Moreover, a pharmacist gets to work with the latest and most exciting advancements in technology and medicine. Concepts like electronic prescriptions and benefits like being among the first to know about exciting developments in genetics and medicine will be part of your life forever.

pharmacist coat

Over the centuries, the science of pharmacy has played a fundamental role in improvements to our general well-being and life expectancy. Some of the most devastating diseases—including Bubonic Plague that reached a death toll to over 50 million people, and smallpox which was responsible for 400,000 deaths in the 18th century alone—are now a thing of the past.

And how did we reach that point? Pharmacists. But pharmacy goes back so far, when did pharmacists start to rely on science over other beliefs? When did diseases start to be treated like infections and not as a punishment from God (a popular belief as to the cause of Leprosy and other ailments for a long, long time)?

In this article, we’re in for a panoramic view of the history of pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacists. We will see how pharmacists and the treatment of diseases used to be in the past, how we reached the current state of pharmacy, and, of course, when the white lab coat come into play in the field of pharmacy, and what that symbolized.


The treatment of diseases “way back when”

Before we dive into the history of pharmacy, it’s worth it to shed some light on the prehistoric understanding and treatment of disease. The information man has gathered on this topic comes to us primarily from examination of excavated human bones, ancient medicine and surgical tools, and drawings.

In the prehistoric years, medicines consisted mostly of vegetable products and herbs. To determine the healing properties of those natural products, our ancestors worked empirically with trial and error. Through that process, they discovered which plants are poisonous, which can be used for food, and which had therapeutic value.

You’ve probably known this as long as you can remember. The interesting thing is that this is just part of the story. When it comes to the perception of death and disease in prehistoric times, people of that age didn’t regard these as natural phenomena. Conversely, common illnesses—from colds to any illness that could be dealt with by herbal remedies—were accepted as natural phenomena.

Serious diseases and death, however, were perceived very differently. These diseases were thought to be of supernatural origin. Their cause could have either been a spell cast on the victim or work by a demon, or even as the outcome from an angry and offended god!

As for the treatment of these diseases, by all of today’s standards, it was nothing short of bizarre. Treatments revolved around extracting the evil spirit from the patient. One example that will leave you in awe is the old practice of drilling a 2.5-to-5-cm hole in the skull of the patient. Trepanned skulls with this very hole have been found in parts of Europe and Peru. There is even evidence that some of these patients survived these procedures!

As we can see, religion, spirits, and magic played a large role in the treatment of diseases in the prehistoric era. The doctor and the pharmacist were the same person, and remedies were often accompanied by incarnations, dancing, and religious rituals.

The first-ever found pharmaceutical texts were written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia. These texts mentioned herbs, beer, wine, tree bark, and formulas for pulverizing, boiling and filtering these ingredients for health purposes.


The history of the science of pharmacy (0-1200 A.D.)

Up until 1240 A.D., medicine and pharmacy were the same thing. They were also heavily influenced by religion. Let’s see some pharmaceutical landmarks of that age.


Galen (130-200 A.D.) and drug compounding

Galen was a Greek physician that taught and practiced both pharmacy and medicine in Rome. He was the first to introduce drug compounding, a process of mixing two or more substances. His practices ruled the Western world for 1500 years, and his name is still associated with plant-based pharmaceuticals (or “galenicals”).


The first apothecary shops (8th century)

pharmacist lab coatsThe first privately-owned drug stores started operating in Bagdad late in the eighth century. These stores used to develop and sell natural resource syrups, conserves, alcoholic liquids, confections, and distilled waters. The drug store of that age was a place to buy both delicacies and medicines.


The separation of pharmacy and medicine (1240 A.D.)

At around 1240 A.D., pharmacy and medicine were officially split off one from the other. The separation occurred under King Frederick II’s rule in Prussia, and for the first time, the professions along with the regulations of physicians and pharmacists were considered two different things.

Before the separation of pharmacy and medicine, a doctor and a pharmacist were the same person. These professionals typically studied medicine and pharmacy in Rome, Greece, or the Middle East. Their job was to both examine patients and create plant-based medications.


The history continues (1729 - 1928)

By 1729, apothecaries were present in the Middle East, London and other European cities, as well as New France (modern-day Canada).

In 1729, the Irish immigrant Christopher Marshall established one of America’s first apothecaries in Philadelphia. This pioneer pharmaceutical business became a leading large-scale chemical manufacturing enterprise. Moreover, it was also a “practical” training school for pharmacists. Later, the business came to be managed by Marshall’s granddaughter Elizabeth, America’s first woman pharmacist.


The first hospital in Colonial America (1752)

In 1752, Colonial America’s first hospital opened the first hospital pharmacy. John Morgan practiced there as a hospital pharmacist in 1755, making a great impact on pharmacy and medicine that shaped the professional pharmacy in North America. John Morgan’s most notable achievement is the promotion of prescription writing. (Maybe we can even credit him for the totally illegible prescription writing bemoaned worldwide today?)


Scheele, Sertürner, and Ferriar (1800)

These three men made great contributions to the science of pharmacy. They all made breakthroughs in chemistry and linked it back to pharmaceutical initiatives.

Carl Scheele conducted thousands of experiments that lead to the discovery of organic compounds such as oxygen, glycerin, chlorine, and many more. These experiments changed the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry.

Adam Sertürner discovered morphine and proved the importance of alkaloids.

Finally, John Ferriar discovered the first heart medicine.


Establishment of America’s first school of pharmacy (1821)

In 1821, American pharmacy strengthened its foundations by establishing the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Thus, education in the profession of pharmacy in the U.S. was born. The college emphasized the sciences of chemistry and biology as foundations of the curriculum in pharmacy, and academic lessons were based on teaching, research, and service. However, the tradition of the pharmacist white coat ceremony would appear much later.


The breakthroughs continue (1885-1922)

Between 1885 and 1922, the field of pharmacy saw one breakthrough after another. Here are some landmarks of that period:

  • Louis Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine in 1885
  • Felix Hoffman successfully synthesized salicylic acid—or aspirin—for commercial sale in 1892
  • Paul Ehrlich discovered arsphenamine, which was the first effective treatment for syphilis
  • Frederick Banting, Charles Best, John Macleod, and James Collip isolated insulin in 1922, which was commercially introduced the following year


Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin (1928)

The year 1928 marked the creation of a revolution in the science of pharmacy, penicillin. This discovery proved to be the world’s first antibiotic and bacteria killer. The discovery and production of penicillin paved the way for pharmacy to become the science we know today. Also, it was during that time that the pharmacist lab coat made its appearance in the field of pharmaceuticals. In the image below, you can see the father of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, wearing a white lab coat.

history of pharmaceutical equipment

Between 1729 and 1928, new hospitals, the spread of apothecaries, the establishment of pharmacy schools, and multiple scientific breakthroughs revolutionized the field and science of pharmacy. Drugs came to be commercially sold, pharmacists were molded by academic studies, and pharmaceutical sciences came to be based purely on science and empirical evidence. And finally, at the start of the 1900s, the white lab coat made its appearance in the field of pharmacy.


More advancements and the establishment of the pharmacist lab coat (1932-1955)

science lab coatsDuring this far more recent period, the science and education of pharmacy have advanced even more.

  • In 1932, pharmacy schools began to require a four-year program completion to receive a Bachelor of Pharmacy.
  • In 1938, congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This law required that new drugs should be tested and approved by the FDA before they reach the market.
  • In 1940, Oxford University scientists Howard Florey, Norman Heatley, and Ernest Chain successfully developed penicillin in medicinal form. Penicillin was mass-produced by U.S pharmaceutical companies by 1943.
  • In 1954, the required academic commitment to earn a degree in pharmacy became five years in the U.S. and countries throughout Western Europe (instead of four).
  • In the early 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine. The large-scale use of the vaccine started in 1954 and in the following years, the incidence of polio in the U.S. alone fell from 18 to fewer than 2 cases per 100,000 people.

It’s in this relatively contemporary period that we see many advancements we’re more familiar with today.

It was also in that period that the establishment of the pharmacist lab coat became a staple, both to represent the scientific rigor required in the field and as a very necessary piece of labwear or personal protective equipment, given the type of work pharmacists came to be doing. The white lab coat actually changed the history of pharmacy, as it did with medicine not long before.

Particularly by the beginning of the 1900s—and with the breakthrough of sterilization—doctors started to rely more on science to cure disease. As a result, they adopted the white lab coat from scientists to inspire trust and scientific expertise. Soon after, pharmacists also adopted the white lab coat to reflect all the great advancements and the new image of the science of pharmacy after the start of the 20th century.

As we’ve seen throughout this article, pharmacy (like any other type of science) has come through many revolutions and has discarded virtually all of its “old ways.” Today, pharmacy is regarded as a respected profession that heavily relies on research, experiments, and science.

The advancements in pharmacy have saved and elongated millions lives each year, more all the time, and continues to increase the well-being of us all. The pharmacist of our age is an inseparable part of the treatment chain, linking the knowledge of the physician with the treatment of patients. The white lab coat represents the revolution in the science of pharmacy.


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