Through the years, the people responsible for dispensing medications have gone by several different titles, the most common of which have been apothecary, druggist and pharmacist, and chemist in many British Commonwealth nations. With the name changes have come changes in the duties and responsibilities of the job known today as pharmacist.
In Colonial America, apothecaries often practiced as doctors. They treated patients and performed surgery as well as prescribing, compounding and dispensing medications. They also trained apprentices in the days before medical schools and performed midwife services. The symbol of their profession was a mortar and pestle, reflecting the practice of compounding medicines by pulverizing them together.
Druggist and Pharmacist
The term “druggist” appears together with apothecary in periodicals of the late 19th century. Some physicians also advertised themselves as druggists, highlighting the fact that they dispensed the medications they prescribed. The term “pharmacist” begins to appear around the same time, often interchangeably with druggist. One merchant was listed as an expert chemist, druggist and pharmacist. These practitioners often performed a variety of medical services in addition to compounding and dispensing medications.
Evolution and Training
The pharmacist’s profession has grown over time. Until the early part of the 20th century, pharmacists were as likely to acquire their medications from walks in the woods and meadows as from a manufacturer and to compound them based on experience and observation. It wasn’t until the 1920s that pharmacists began to obtain most of their medications from manufacturers. As medications became standardized, the profession became far more technical and scientific, and by 1932, licensing requirements nationwide included a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in the sciences.
Although references to druggists still come up occasionally, pharmacist has become the accepted title for the occupation in the U.S., while chemist remains popular in the Commonwealth. The term apothecary survives as well, but as a marketing tool. Pharmacists themselves, while they no longer act as doctors, undergo a great deal of professional training. A bachelor’s degree in pharmacy is required for licensure in all 50 states, as are continuing education courses. The explosion of prescription medications available today has created the potential for a wide variety of dangerous combinations, and it falls to the pharmacist to monitor the aggregate of medications dispensed to patients, as well as the over-the-counter medications they may purchase, to ensure against bad reactions. Thus, although their actual roles have changed significantly, modern pharmacists are every bit as important to patients' health care as were the apothecaries of Colonial times.
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