Pharmacy in the 50s


Pharmacy historian Ralph Tapping casts his mind back to how pharmacy was practised when he first entered the profession

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a fifteen minute talk to a Rotary Club on ‘The History of Pharmacy’.

An impossible task in the time available, so I elected to talk about how pharmacy was practised in the 1950s – specifically 1957, when I ventured into the profession.

In those days, one became a pharmacist by first obtaining an apprenticeship at a community pharmacy and doing a three year part-time course at the pharmacy school. My father happened to be Registrar of the Pharmacy Board, and could be said to have had a few contacts and I was lined up to start at a Hobart pharmacy shortly after completing matriculation.

At the time, I counted 23 pharmacies in the CBD, each mostly with one pharmacist and an apprentice, although sometimes there was an additional pharmacist. Today I can count only six in the same area.

My starting wage was one pound eighteen and threepence ($3.82)—per week, not per hour! At the time, school leavers were being paid the equivalent of $10 per week to work in a bank.

The past is another world

In the words of John Williamson, the 1950s were “before the dollar and before the pill”, so things were very different. Computers did not exist, even the pocket calculator had not been developed. Prescriptions were handwritten with pen and ink (sometimes even in pencil) and medicines were mostly compounded in the pharmacy.

Of course, the ability to read a prescription and interpret the doctor’s handwriting was an important part of student examinations.

Scripts were transcribed into the prescription ledger (script book) by hand and, once compounded, the instructions were typed up on a manual typewriter on pre-printed, gummed labels headed ‘The Mixture’, ‘The Ointment’, ‘The Cream’, ‘The Suppositories’ or, perhaps, ‘The Tablets’.

The dose for mixtures was generally prescribed in ‘teaspoonfuls’ or ‘tablesponfuls’. For some reason the contents were never divulged, unlike today, where the patient is fully informed. People were very trusting in those times and held the pharmacist in high esteem! In fact, many would consult the pharmacist first before being referred to the doctor.

Much more Pharmacy Only

A particular difference in those times was that ‘medicines’ could only be purchased in a pharmacy (even aspirin) with the exception that country stores in towns with no pharmacy could stock a limited range.

Similarly, feminine hygiene products, baby feeding bottles and formulae, vitamins and many toiletries were only available in pharmacies. Every pharmacy had a set of baby-weighing scales on the counter.

Contraceptives was another category confined to pharmacy, kept behind the counter out of sight. No self-serve in those days! One had to ask the assistant for condoms. Two brands were available—‘Checkers’ and ‘Durex” in packs of 3 or 12, so the novice would be asked “What size?”… “er… um…er… I suppose medium”.

To further complicate matters some staunch Roman Catholic pharmacists refused to stock such dastardly items.

In the dispensary we had to deal with the Imperial System of weights and measures, including the Avoirdupois and Apothecary systems—one ounce Avoir contained 437.5 grains, but in Apothecary or Troy system one ounce is 480 grains. In the case of percentage solutions, a 1% w/v in the Apothecary system would contain 1 grain of solid in 109.7 minims, whereas in the Avoir system a 1% w/v solution would contain 1 grain in 100 minims.

The adoption of the metric system made the manual calculations so much easier. (One grain is equivalent to 64mg.)

Galenicals were generally obtained from manufacturing chemists, such as Alfred Lawrence & Co. The Glycerine and Tannic Acid pictured was used to treat mouth and throat ulcers and was very effective.

Trading hours were more civilised in those days—no weekend opening, except for one hour between 6 and 7 pm on Saturdays and Sundays for emergency supply.

The photographic department

We also did a big trade in cameras and photo processing—so different today. Colour prints did not become available until well into the 1960s—only Kodachrome slides.

Even wedding photos were printed in black and white, sepia toned and then hand coloured by studio artists!

Space does not permit me to elaborate further in this article on how things have changed. One other subject worthy of mention is the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme which was in its infancy in the 1950s, but that will have to wait for a future issue!

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