All people are familiar with the roles of doctors in administering medical care, but pharmacists are equally important in caring for patients and helping people get well. Formerly known as apothecaries, pharmacists are individuals who are trained and licensed to mix and dispense medications. Employed mainly at hospitals and pharmacies, pharmacists fill prescriptions, advise patients on how to properly take their medicines, and warn them about what they should and should not do when they are taking a particular prescription. Pharmacists must have extensive knowledge of chemistry and medicine in order to do their jobs properly.
Pharmacists and apothecaries work under the rubric of pharmacology, which is the study of how different drugs and medicines affect the human body. To one degree or another, this science has been practiced throughout history, as human beings have long known that certain herbs and other naturally occurring substances can alleviate symptoms and even help cure certain afflictions.
In ancient Egypt, apothecaries experimented with different medicines as early as the sixteenth century BC. Some of the things they used for medicines, with varying levels of success, included myrrh, beer, salt, and even hooves from donkey! In ancient and medieval times, apothecaries often did their work in conjunction with priests and other religious figures, as it was believed that demons and other supernatural beings played a large role in sickness and disease.
As knowledge of medicines increased over the course of history, so too did the number and variety of remedies. Through trial and error over many centuries, pharmacists and apothecaries become more adept at concocting different medicines, many of which continue in use to this day. The ancient Greeks and Romans used herbs for many applications. Citizens of Athens, for example, often used rubs made of herbs because they thought they would give them more strength and courage. During the Middle Ages, monks raised herb gardens and used what they produced to treat a variety of conditions, including cramps.
New discoveries of a variety of drugs accompanied both the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Acetylsalicylic acid, for the active ingredient in aspirin, was first developed at the end of the nineteenth century. Others discovered drugs as well and had them patented. In fact, many of the drug companies around today are named for an individual who discovered or first marketed an important drug many decades ago.
Since there have been apothecaries and pharmacists around for centuries, there are many important figures in history who served in these positions, dispensing medicines and other drug advice. Historically speaking, Islam has made important contributions to pharmacology, especially during the medieval period. The famous Muslim scientist Avicenna (b. 980 AD) wrote an important textbook titled The Canon of Medicine, a multivolume work that is one of the first encyclopedias of pharmacy.
A few centuries later, the famous Christian poet Dante Alighieri served for a time in the apothecary guild. Closer to the current age, Benjamin Franklin worked as an apothecary for a short time before he became such an influential political figure. Coca-Cola, perhaps the world’s best-known brand-name product, was invented by the pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886, and it was originally marketed as having medicinal purposes.
As medical knowledge continues to advance, there is little doubt that the science of pharmacology will progress as well. Pharmacists will play an important role far into the future in taking this science and applying it to the needs of everyday people. The end result will be better health for everyone.