Pharmacy is one of those words that the whole world seems to understand, yet is often confused about the exact meaning of.
Sure, the word has to do with medicines, but does it name the pharmaceutical industry itself, the process of manufacturing drugs, the occupation of a chemist, the place where medicines are sold, or all of the above-mentioned?
The word derives from the Medieval Latin pharmacia, from the Greek pharmakeia (use of medicines, witchcraft; remedy, cure).
To enter English during the 14th century, through the French farmacie (a purgative) and the initial meaning of ‘a purgative drug and the treatment with purgatives.’
The prime remedies for illnesses of the time involved purgation and bloodletting. And the first written record coming from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, naturally, talks about pharmacy potions drunk to heal numerous health issues through purgation: “To other wounds and broken arms…pharmacy of herbs… they drunk.”
Followed by the definition of pharmacy as: “pharmacy that is laxative purgatives”, provided in the 1400 English translation of Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie.
By the 1650s, the word came to name both the preparation and dispensing of medicinal drugs, along with the occupation of a pharmaceutical chemist. First attested in the 1651 translation of James Primrose’s Popular errours: “A physician ought..to be skilfull in Pharmacie, which consists in choice, preparation, and composition of simple Medicaments.”
The meaning of ‘a place where drugs are prepared and dispensed’ is first recorded in 1833, in Fraser’s magazine for town and country: “Attached to the church..is a pharmacy, where medicine is dispensed gratis.”
It was a common practice at the time that physicians were attending the stores of chemists, at stated hours, to give gratis advices and to dispense their prescriptions.
For comparison, the word pharmaceutical – as both a noun and an adjective related to pharmacy – first appeared in print in 1636, in John Sadler’s The sick womans private looking-glasse: “The cure shall bee taken from Chirurgicall, Pharmaceuticall, and Diæteticall Means.”
And pharmacists, as a person engaged in the practice of pharmacy, was first mentioned in Edward Strother’s Dr. Radcliffe’s Practical dispensatory from 1721.