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  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • November 2018
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What exactly is an apothecary? A medieval history explained

Apothecary (uh-poth-uh-ker-ee): now that we know how to say it, let’s explore what exactly an apothecary is. It is an old word that our modern society doesn’t really use very often. We tend to use the word “pharmacy” these days. Today’s modern pharmacists have their roots in the apothecary, which is exactly what they would have been making their medicines out of.

Apothecaries were popular between the medieval times till the end of the 19th century. In medieval times, if you needed medicine, you had three choices: go to the local monastery and hope that they had a physic garden where they were growing medicinal herbs; go out and gather your own herbs and hope that you had a positive identification of the herb in question; or go to the town apothecary shop.

The latter was probably the best choice. Apothecaries were skilled men of the merchant class. They studied plants for years. First they had to know what each plant looked like. Then they had to know which part of the plant to harvest, then the appropriate time to harvest it. Some had a garden where they would grow all of their medicinal plants and some gathered from the countryside. When trading became available with the big ships going to other countries and bringing back obscure flora, this opened up a whole new line of spices valued for their culinary fines, and ancient healing like cinnamon, black pepper and ginger.

Apothecaries also had to act as the doctors. If you were sick, you went to the apothecary, told them your symptoms and then they figured out what you would need. The answer, many times, was bloodletting. The medieval people thought that when there is illness in the body, one of the four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) must be off. So to balance the humors, you needed to get rid of the one that was too prevalent. Usually this was blood and it was done in a few barbaric ways. One was to strap you down and slice open your veins and let the bad blood drip out into a pan. As time went on, someone invented a little machine that quickly put a gash into you. But the all-time favorite of the apothecaries was leeches. Usually right up on the counter was a big jar of leeches, just waiting to suck out all of your bad blood and make you better.

If they decided that it was a medicine that you needed, they would make it right there on the spot (compounding). They would figure out exactly what herbs might help with your affliction and mash them together in the apothecary’s tool of choice, the mortar and pestle. They would use this tool to grind up each herb into a powder. Sometimes you would just swallow the powder, sometimes it was mixed with a bit of honey or water to make pills, and other times they would mix it into a liquid form to consume.

Besides medicines and spices, you could find many other things at the apothecary shop, just like our modern pharmacy. The apothecaries would make cosmetics, perfumes, shampoos and soaps, cleaning agents, and dyes for clothing.

To become an apothecary, you would need to be an apprentice to an established apothecary for many years learning the trade. Gathering herbs for the apothecary, getting things ready for them to do their work, and mostly sweeping and cleaning the shop.

In the 1800s there was a rise in patent medicine. No longer did you have to go to the apothecary, but traveling salesmen would come to you selling their cure-alls. Most of these medicines were made with a base of alcohol, and many of them had some heavy narcotics in them such as heroin and cocaine. While they might not actually heal your cold or strained muscle, they did make you feel a lot better. Many times the labels didn’t tell you what all of the ingredients in them were and many had claims that they cured all things that could be wrong with you.

By the early 1900s chemists had discovered how to synthesize the good chemicals of the plants and the modern pharmacy was born.

Today there are a few apothecary/pharmacy museums that you can visit and a few modern day apothecary shops where skilled herbalists still make their own medicinals, body products and all natural cleaning agents out of whole herbs that they have grown or gathered. 

Melissa Aurora Adlebush

Melissa Aurora Adlebush is the president of the Fox Valley Herb Society, and was the state champion of plant identification in 2004. She studied Botany and Ethnobotany at Northland College, Ashland. She teaches many classes all over the state. Melissa is Herbalist and Owner of Aurora’s Apothecary where she grows most of the herbs that are put into their products. Aurora’s Apothecary is located at 1607 Richmond St, Appleton. For more information, call 920-430-7846 or visit

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