[The Curious Apothecary] A Lady Pharmacist

Madeehah R.
10 min readOct 2, 2021

When I started my pharmacy degree a lot of people told me that it was a good career choice for a woman.

It was either that or be a teacher (and we all know how stress-free and flexible teaching is).

I know those people meant well, but I didn’t choose my career just so that I could fit a potential family around it. That’s not why I wanted to go to university or why I wanted to work in healthcare.

It seems the worth of a woman’s career is attached to how well she can manage her family; if she can’t, then she should focus solely on her kids. There’s so much to unpack with this kind of thinking, but this isn’t the blog post for that.

Instead, I’m going to focus on women who really did make pharmacy their life’s work purely from their interest in the medicinal arts and their desire to help their communities.

Now, that sounds like a better reason to pursue a career, doesn’t it?

The Chemist’s Wife

In 1886, Anton Chekov published a short story called ‘ The Chemist’s Wife ‘. The story focuses on how two men, a doctor and lieutenant, call upon a pharmacy to buy a few things. Pharmacies in that time and place had to stay open and trade throughout the night. The pharmacist was obliged to serve them.

The pharmacist, however, does not wake up when they ring the bell. His wife, Madame Tchernomordik, hurries to dress herself and serve the customers.

(And you thought it was difficult separating work and relaxation when working from home — imagine having a whole pharmacy to manage behind your bedroom door!)

The two men are surprised to see a woman working in a pharmacy. She serves them as they ask for various knick-knacks and the men wonder how she could not be ‘afraid of moving about among the poisons’. She explains how her husband does not have an assistant and she always helps him with the work.

They joke and flirt with her, and she reciprocates somewhat. She drinks some wine with them. It’s clear to see she enjoys herself in their company, despite the initial hesitation.

Once they leave, the doctor comes back to the pharmacy. Madame Tchernomordik’s husband finally wakes up to this sound.

“There’s a ring at the bell, and you don’t hear it,” he said severely. “Is that the way to do things?”

The pharmacist serves a disappointed doctor (who wants to speak and flirt with the Madame) and goes back to bed.

The pharmacist’s wife laments and starts to cry that she is so unhappy. She hints at how her husband does not give her the warm attention that the two men had done so earlier.

He doesn’t hear, however. He’s asleep, completely oblivious to his wife’s cries.

Her husband sees her as merely a tool for his business; the two men see her as an object of desire. Perhaps, she not only laments her husband’s obliviousness to her needs but also how others see her as no more than a means to an end.

Aside from the commentary on her unhappy marriage, The Chemist’s Wife paints a portrait of a stifled woman. She is clearly skilled and able to work in a pharmacy: a technical and somewhat dangerous environment i.e. with poisons. She deals with far more custom and business than her husband does. She’s also much more pleasant to the customers: answering ‘What may I give you?’ rather than her husband’s gruff ‘What… is it?’

She has much to offer, and yet Chekov stops the story short. It’s almost as if this is all we have to see of her life, this bitter portrayal.

Some years after Chekov published this story, the Russian government changed the law for women to become assistant pharmacists (much like a pharmacy technician today). This was decades after British and American women were able to study pharmacy: in 1868, British women were allowed to register as pharmacists. Women usually took over a pharmacy from their husbands or fathers, but now the world was allowing women into the field of the medicinal arts.

Little did we know, women were already in this field from long ago.

The Noblewomen of Germany

In 16th century Germany, there lived two noblewomen: Anna of Saxony and Sibylla of Anhalt.

This was a time where economic hardship was rife; the class divide between the rich and poor created a palpable tension. Women were constantly put out of work by way of prejudice as their male counterparts were hired over them.

But these two noblewomen were princesses at birth, so they didn’t have to worry about any of these issues. Both Anna and Sybilla married powerful men before the age of twenty and went on to have many children (more than fifteen each!). They led very comfortable lives for people in their time.

And they both practised pharmacy, but very distinct types of pharmacy.

Sibylla & the Leonberg Apothecary

Sibylla of Anhalt had a tumultuous marriage with her husband, Friedrich I, Duke of Württemberg. Despite bearing him many children, their relationship devolved into one of insults and harsh words exchanged through letters. Friedrich thought himself above the fidelity of marriage and would go on to have several mistresses.

He doesn’t sound like a nice guy, does he?

Friedrich had told her to ‘pay attention to the court pharmacy’ in order to ‘avoid gossip’. It’s likely that this was an insult to her and what women were expected to do in those days, but nevertheless Sibylla spent time in her own apothecary.

This apothecary was at their home at Stuttgart palace. Sybilla kept her pharmacy endeavours close to her chest and never spoke about it with her family. She did, however, have two women helpers: Helena Ruckher (daughter of a famous physician) and Maria Andreä who would become a trusted friend and pharmacy partner.

Though Sibylla’s husband was interested in alchemy, he did not support her in her pharmaceutical endeavours. This is a stark contrast to Anna of Saxony, who we’ll see a bit later on.

Alchemy was the predecessor of chemistry, where it was thought you could change elements in one another. People used to chase the idea of turning metals into gold.

After her husband’s death, Sibylla moved to the town of Leonberg and built an apothecary that extended from her new palace. She was able to grow medicinal herbs in a special garden. These herbs were not found in the apothecary’s inventory after her death, suggesting they were used often to make remedies.

There were many curious finds in the inventory of Sibylla’s apothecary, including… ‘human ingredients’! Yes, you read that correctly!

Items like human lard, dried human skins, human hearts and pieces of skull were found amongst her possessions. It’s thought this might have been due to the ancient Egyptian tradition of seeking healing powers from a mummy, i.e. a corpse. A little grim for my taste, and I’m glad that this isn’t practised in pharmacy now!

Sibylla also kept sugar in her apothecary. Sugar in those days was quite expensive and could have been used for making various medicinal sweets. Medicines infamously taste quite bitter (try licking a tablet…), so adding some sugar to these solutions and preparations would certainly make it easier for the patient to take.

It is said that the primary reason for Sibylla’s apothecary was charitable i.e. to provide medicines for the poor and needy. Though this claim has been disputed, it’s important to note that both Sibylla and Anna of Saxony did not charge for their medicinal services.

Whether or not their intention was for charity, they did not derive any material benefit from creating medicines but most certainly benefited their local community.

Sibylla was, however, known for providing care to the local community with ‘all sorts of healing and exquisite medicines which [she] made with her own hands’.

Anna’s Medicine Industry

Though she had some similarities to Sibylla, Anna of Saxony led a different life. Her marriage to William I, the Elector of Saxony was affectionate and known as such by their people. Her husband encouraged her pharmaceutical interests and her children knew of her talents.

Anna established herself as a pharmaceutical scientist in her own right, formulating her own ‘recipes’ for cures and making remedies for children and antidotes for poison.

Anna was also enthusiastic about discussing the details of pharmaceutical work, as seen when she wrote to one of her contemporaries, Countess Dorothea of Mansfield. When she had gained a reputation for her work, she often corresponded with other members of her family and other aristocrats about her medical interests. This is in stark contrast to Sibylla who, sadly while she was married, kept her interests to herself.

Anna’s pharmaceutical inventory was larger than Sibylla’s. Her possessions were found in two main places, a distillation house in the palace gardens (where the main ‘medicine-making’ happened) and in rooms in the main palace.

In those rooms was a small apothecary where ingredients, like those mentioned below, were kept:

pieces of white wax, a jar of goat butter, flower blossoms, oleum sanctum from the Indies, balsam of Peru, liquid amber, the best theriac, a balsam from India, sweet ambergris, mastix, musk, storax and calamita

These ingredients were in such close proximity to Anna’s desk in the palace rooms that it suggests she tinkered and made remedies in her own personal space. The inventory in these rooms was haphazard, almost like something you’d see in the laboratory of a fictional scientist, with curious objects nearly falling off shelves and beakers brimming with potions.

In the distillation house was a vast amount of pharmaceutical equipment and ingredients. This was where Anna’s industry was really shown: just picture GSK or AstraZeneca but run by a German princess in the 16th century. This distillation house was run by Anna’s servants and other women workers who kept the day-to-day activities going. Anna was, however, proactive and hands-on in managing her distillery.

Anna’s most famed remedy was her aqua vitae, a concentrated solution of ethanol. It is said the recipe contains over 380 ingredients and nine separate distillation processes. Just imagine that working away in a 16th-century distillery!

This aqua vitae was useful for many cases. In 1570, the Roman Empress Maria of Austria had complained of her poor health, including symptoms like dizziness. Anna wrote to the Empress and sent a box of goodies: a powder for her general well being and a ‘water’ (aqua vitae) to cure her dizziness. She even goes on to suggest tempering the solution with cinnamon water, as it would ‘strengthen the heart and vital forces wonderfully’.

Anna provided advice like this to her contemporaries for no exchange of money, though she perhaps did try to get in the good books of these powerful people by doing them a favour.

Anna kept the actual recipes close to her chest. Her daughter had once written to her to ask for the recipe for this aqua vitae, assuring her mother that she would only pass it to her children and no one else. Anna treasured these recipes, as they were far more important to her than the ingredients themselves (over hundreds of them!).

Women in Pharmacy: celebrated for talent and compassion

The role of women in pharmacy (or any field) shouldn’t be understated. Historical prejudices have kept women solely in the domestic sphere. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in itself, it should be down to the woman to decide.

These women could be classified as pharmacists or pharmaceutical scientists in the modern sense, but it was because of their class, status and wealth that they were able to access these areas of research and mental freedom. A regular 16th-century woman, who would no doubt be a mother to several children, would certainly never have had the freedom and autonomy to pursue an occupation like that.

In today’s world, women choose to go into further study because of what they’re interested in, what they can contribute to that field, or just out of pure enjoyment. We shouldn’t be tied down into thinking ‘what other people will think’ of our career choices. The only thing that matters is what you enjoy!

References:

  • The Chemist’s Wife analysis on eNotes: https://www.enotes.com/topics/chemists-wife/themes
  • German Society in the later 1500s, Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/place/Germany/The-confessional-age-1555-1648
  • Conroy, M. S. (1987). Women Pharmacists in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Russia. Pharmacy in History, 29(4), 155–164
  • Rankin, A. (2014). Exotic materials and treasured knowledge: the valuable legacy of noblewomen’s remedies in early modern Germany. Renaissance Studies, 28(4), 533–555.
  • Rankin, A. (2013). 4. Anna of Saxony and Her Medical “Handiwork”. In Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (pp. 128–167). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Originally published at https://madeehahreza.com on October 2, 2021.

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