"The word apothecary, in the Norman period of English history, designated anyone who kept a shop or store of such nonperishable commodities as spices, drugs, comfits and preserves.
During the later Middle Ages the term was restricted to those who prepared and sold drugs. Not until the end of the 18th century were the professions of apothecary and physician clearly distinguished."
Harold B. Gill, Jr., The Apothecary in Colonial Virginia
Imagine, for a moment, that you stand in front of your local pharmacy, ready to fill the prescription your doctor has advised. As you walk through the doors, expecting to be confronted with stark, fluorescent lights and endless aisles, you are instead facing a small, dimly-lit room. Behind the work counter a man employs a mortar and pestle, grinding the seeds and herbs that he has laid out before him. You hand him the prescription your doctor gave you and he quickly gets to work.
What was an apothecary
Prevalent throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, apothecaries were the pharmacists of the past. They originally dispensed herbal remedies that were prescribed by formally trained physicians. In later times, or in remote areas without ready access to doctors, they also diagnosed illnesses and prescribed a treatment plan for their patients.
Physicians would prescribe medication to their patients and the prescriptions would then be taken to the apothecary shops to be filled. In her book Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England author Carole Rawcliffe mentions the possible need for keeping the professions of Physician separated from the dispensing and sale of medicines: "Whether or not physicians themselves were reluctant to prepare and sell the remedies which they prescribed because commercial activities would have undermined their professional status, or simply because it made sense for some tradesmen to specialize as pharmacists in large urban communities, the business of supplying medical and restorative preparations was from quite early on undertaken by spicer-apothecaries."
Apothecary shops were often comprised of more than one room. The main display area of the shop contained shelves which were filled with jars of prepared medicines and herbs. Another room could be used for the actual preparation of specific formulas as prescribed by the doctors. There may also have been a patient consultation room in the larger apothecary shops where the apothecary or his apprentice would assist customers with the selection and purchase of their supplies.
Many apothecaries would also have a large garden located on the premises for the growing of the more common medicinal herbs that were used in their practice.
While certain medicinal herbs could be grown by the average home owner in their household gardens for purposes of self-medication, many of the more exotic herbal wares could only be purchased through the local apothecary's shop. These herbs and spices which came from far away lands included ginger, galingal, saffron, cubebs, pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.