A Brief History of Pharmacy

Since King James I established Western society’s first independent pharmacist guild in England during the early 17th century, pharmacy has held a central role in health care. Initially known as “apothecaries,” early community pharmacists prepared and dispensed remedies while offering front-line medical advice to their customers. Apothecary traditions traveled to the New World with the English colonists, where they flourished for centuries.

Apothecaries became widely known in the United States as pharmacists nearly 150 years ago, thanks to Edward Parrish of American Pharmaceutical Association, as it was called at the time. In an effort to standardize the field, Parrish successfully proposed that members of the national professional organization consider all the varied pharmaceutical practitioners “pharmacists.” Their field formally identified, pharmacists made as well as prescribed medicines and remained community medical counselors until the 1950s.

Federal legislation substantially changed pharmacy’s role in 1951. With the passage of the Durham-Humphrey Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, pharmacists, who until then had been able to dispense all drugs except narcotics, needed a physician’s prescription to dispense many medications. Restricted to recommending over-the-counter medications, pharmacists began focusing on dispensing and product safety.

Mortar and Pestle

Pharmacy’s focus began to expand again during the 1980s. A professional movement that proponents called clinical pharmacy gained momentum, urging pharmacists to take on a vital role in the American health care system by providing medication expertise to ensure patients properly and safely use their medications. The movement had gathered considerable steam by the time federal legislation once again intervened, this time in the form of the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act. The law opened up tremendous opportunities for drug therapy and information services by mandating that patients covered by the act receive counseling when they purchase medications. Pharmacists are stepping up to fulfill the mandate, answering questions and offering advice to patients about both prescription and over-the-counter medications.

And so the practice of pharmacy is coming full circle. Pharmacists are assuming increasingly critical roles in modern health care teams, providing direct patient care and advocacy. What does that mean for patients? It means pharmacists are there to help improve their health. Without a doubt, pharmacists are the most accessible health care professionals in every community. They provide education, medication management and responsive service to patients. Patient-centered care is our tradition and our history, as well as our future.

Historical information provided by Robert Zebroski, Ph.D., professor of history at STLCOP.