“Unscrupulous chemists”

February 1921: A disgruntled pharmacy “Judas” is under fire for sharing trade secrets in the national press

The February 1921 edition of the AJP including the ocverage of a letter published earlier that year in the ‘Worker’ which was labelled ‘Unscrupulous chemists’.

In a thundering commentary on the article, the AJP denounced the writer as a ‘Judas’.

“Some disgruntled pharmacist, for a few pieces of silver, has evidently acted like Judas of old,” the editorial said.

“Not content with disclosing a trade practice (common to all callings, and justifiable, as the writer must know), he casts unwarranted and cheap aspersions on the general body of pharmacists, probably with the idea of increasing the monetary value of his article.

The paragraph is so full of inaccuracies and garbled misstatements that it does not call for any detailed

So what was this article? It was published in the Worker (Sydney) on January 6, 1921:  

” The profiteer who battens upon the sick and the dying is the most despicable of his brood.

The Board of Health knows all about him, too; so do the Attorney-General and the Minister for Justice, yet he appears as immune from interference as the Governor is of the Income Tax collector.

The shelves of his shop are stocked with jars and pots and bottles of many sizes, and inscribed with unreadable jargon. He has a smattering of Latin, and is accurate in measuring minims and weighing grains.

Sometimes his hand shakes and death ensues, not to himself, but to his victim. He has been known to label a bottle of liniment with a direction to be taken three times a day after food—with disastrous consequences to the food and its owner.

At remarkably rare intervals he has been prosecuted for selling spurious compounds and potions—never for short weight or light measure—and in the sale of his wares he supplies one with as much or as little as he pleases, and there is no one to say him nay.

A prescription which was dispensed at a leading city pharmacy, for which the writer can personally vouch, has had a varied experience. It was impressed with a rubber stamp bearing the firm’s name and address, and marked in the space therein was the letter R, signifying 4 / – . the amount charged. R is the fourth letter of the secret code word, PHARMOCIST, numbered from 1 to 10, and adopted by chemists of this State. H O is 2/6. P O 1/6, RO 4/6, and so on. The lower right-hand half of the R was removed, leaving it P ( 1 / – ).

The prescription has since been made up by two other chemists, and marked PO (1 / 6) by each. Had R remained no doubt 4 / – would have continued to be the price of a powder worth 6d.

A prescription dispensed by another of the principal city pharmacists bears evidence of great ingenuity.

The price charged was 4/6, and the letters RO corresponding thereto are placed immediately under the first letter of the doctor’s formula, the big R meaning recipe, and conveying the idea that it was placed there by the medico.

An Interstate code word is ANTIMSULPH, numbered from 1 t o 10, s o that the ring among chemists runs around the Commonwealth.

Is it any wonder the letters M.P.S.—Member of the Profiteers’ Society—is emblazoned above his door?

At times he takes on a side line, and calls himself optician. He knows all about myopia and astigmatism. And he goes right on.

A tooth that has caused excruciating pain he can extract from its lurking place while you enjoy the ordeal; but he is a greater adept at the extraction of coin by means of his secret process. And the powers that be do nought to discourage him.”

I’d welcome any feedback from readers who could explain the meaning of this letter and the implications of what the writer is saying

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  1. Ron Batagol

    One very minor comment- if I recall correctly from the 1950’s-60’s, the pricing “code word” was ANTOMSULPH, not ANTIMSULPH- any others from that era remember? (this was, of course, before the legislative ban on pricing “collusion”-lol)

    • Jeff Lerner

      Ron is correct; I also remember ANTOMSULPH being used by UK pharmacies in the 1960s. But Boots pharmacies had their own code word OPUSHTRADE for Rx pricing.

      • Anne Todd

        The one my old boss used wasn’t either of those of course we’d move to dollars and cents by then and we only used it for our private scripts, back when you may not have included the price on the actual label which was only the 1980-90s

        my twitter handle has 10 unique letters 0-9 so would form suitable pharmacy pricing code/decoder phrase: Vinum Aloes

        Make what you will of that


    Still use it. Also for phone numbers, passwords etc.. Don’t have much use any more for my Pounds Shillings and Pence Thomas tables…

  3. Jarrod McMaugh

    Chris, this point

    “I’d welcome any feedback from readers who could explain the meaning of this letter and the implications of what the writer is saying”

    The letter writer is saying that pharmacies in “well renowned” places are ripping people off, while others are much cheaper for the same product…. and it seems that the only reasoning for the prices charged is the use of letters on the label, since the product inside the medicine container seems to be the same, regardless of where you have it made up.

    ie some pharmacies use all these extra words on the label, and each letter pushed the price up

    • Geoffrey Timbs

      The implication of the letter is certainly that there was a degree of price fixing between different pharmacies but it was actually to let you know what YOU charged last time you compounded the script since this was not written on the repeat and could not be looked up in the yet to exist computer. Being a collegiate group other pharmacists could also decipher what you had charged and could price to be in the ballpark and not embarrass anyone.
      When I started in the seventies about 10% of scripts were compounded but most were still PBS ( free to pensioners, 50 cents to others) and needed to be priced out on the back of the script using prices from the Yellow Book not forgetting an extemporaneous dispensing fee and a charge for the container and occasionally a DD fee (cocaine eye drops or a barbiturate sleeping draught). If a formula contained an ingredient not in the book it became a private script…. the price of that ingredient was usually written on a label on top of the bottle so ultimately the price would depend on when the ingredient was purchased- nothing had expiry dates so a well stocked pharmacy may have cheap ingredients because they were 10 years old!

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