[The Curious Apothecary] The Dispensary of Agatha Christie
I have always struggled to connect with the profession of pharmacy, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Pharmacists do a lot of good and provide much support to patients and colleagues, but I never felt ‘at home’ in this job. What was it about the work that made me feel like an outsider in my own profession?
Perhaps I came into this career path with misplaced expectations, or maybe I just had too much naive optimism about the difference I could have made to others.
I still don’t have all the answers, but I did find some comfort in the unlikeliest of places…
Yes, that’s right, Agatha Christie.
The Queen of Crime, the Queen of Mystery, the Dame herself!
Despite being a huge Christie fan, I’ve barely scratched the surface with reading all her works. Although her plots rely on a similar formula, I often find myself guessing and second-guessing who the culprit is-somehow, she manages to keep my suspense right to the end.
But her stories aren’t high-octane thrillers with nail-biting car chases. Christie’s cosy mysteries are usually set in sleepy villages or small towns, with characters who know each other well (or so they think). There’s usually an amateur detective too, either a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, both of whom are well-loved in the literary canon.
Christie’s prolific work brought global interest to the genre of murder mysteries and has inspired many other authors and creatives. But for me, I read her books to escape from the tedium of real life, and especially the stress of working life.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that Christie’s writing career started off in the humble pharmacy!
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 in the seaside town of Torquay in Devon, England. Though she described herself as a ‘paralysingly shy’ child, she had a happy childhood, albeit a lonely one.
Her formal education was limited by our modern standards as Christie was taught at home by governesses (the custom at the time) and attended a finishing school in Paris where she focused on the study of music.
But when World War One began, the world changed. The life of luxury was no longer a choice, and all across the country, many had to take up roles that they weren’t accustomed to.
Christie initially served as an unpaid ward nurse in a Red Cross Hospital in her home town. Once a dispensary had been built in this same hospital, Christie was asked to serve there instead and earned an annual salary of £16.
In 1917, Christie completed her pharmaceutical training by passing the Apothecary Hall Examination by the Society of Apothecaries in London. This meant she was legally qualified to dispense medication for a pharmacist or physician, much like a pharmacy technician in modern times.
During World War Two, Christie continued her pharmacy work as an apothecary’s assistant in University College Hospital in London.
With a quick glance at her novels, it’s clear to see her eye for the minute details of medication. How many of us pharmacy professionals would apply our knowledge in such a creative way?
Across the span of sixty-six detective stories, forty-one of these included a poison; from her 148 short stories, twenty-four included a poison. These ranged from arsenic and iodine to potassium cyanide and morphine.
She had to make this believable, of course, as your average village resident wouldn’t know the ins and outs of morphine, so she would ensure that the authority of the character supplying that information was believable.
Christie weaved life (and death) around the technical details of drugs and brought an energy to the world of pharmacy that I had never seen before.
Here are some quotes from The Mysterious Affair at Styles that shows her eye for detail and accuracy (minor spoilers ahead!):
“Strychnine has an unusually bitter taste. It can be detected in a solution of 1 in 70,000, and can only be disguised by some strongly flavoured substance.” “Three, or even four doses, would not have resulted in death. Mrs Inglethorp always had an extra-large amount of medicine made up at a time, as she dealt with Coot’s, the Cash Chemists in Tadminster.” “Now there was, of course, no bromide in Dr Wilkins’ prescription, but you will remember that I mentioned an empty box of bromide powders. One or two of those powders introduced into the full bottle of medicine would effectually precipitate the strychnine as the book describes, and cause it to be taken in the last dose.”
As a pharmacist, I was beaming as I read these passages. I didn’t know of Christie’s background when I had read The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but I could feel her familiarity with the world of pharmacy in her words, a familiarity that extends over a century.
The Pharmaceutical Journal even reviewed The Mysterious Affair at Styles, stating that ‘this novel has the rare merit of being correctly written-so well done, in fact, we are tempted to believe either the author had pharmaceutical training or had called in a capable pharmacist to help in the technical part.’ What an accolade!
In Michael C. Gerald’s paper, he writes how Christie had worked anonymously as a dispenser while she enjoyed her critical acclaim as a novelist. By working anonymously, she developed ‘close professional and warm relationships,’ which ‘provided her with a first-hand understanding of and empathy for [the pharmacist’s] professional problems’.
Working in a dispensary, Christie was in close contact with pharmacists and physicians as well as patients. This served her well in her writing and we can see this in how she brings her characters to life.
As a writer myself, I take this as a lesson in effective writing: observe people and observe their quirks and characteristics. By ‘people-watching’, you begin to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of a person’s actions and reactions.
And in the pharmacy, there are plenty of opportunities to observe the quirks of others!
Mistakes and Mentors
Here’s an incident that newer pharmacy professionals might relate to: mustering up the courage to correct a senior colleague’s mistake.
(Yeah, I can feel the dread already.)
In order to prepare for her exam at the Apothecary Hall, Agatha Christie received practical training from an experienced pharmacist in Torquay called ‘Mr P’.
In the past, medications did not always come in ready-made blister packs and boxes as they do now. Nowadays, the most your local chemist might intervene with the physical formulation of a drug is by reconstituting a bottle of antibiotics.
This wasn’t the case with Agatha Christie. She learnt the art of creating suppositories from scratch, which involved heating the cocoa butter base and diluting the drug at the precise amounts needed for a therapeutic effect.
The suppositories that she prepared were 1 in 100 in strength (i.e. one part drug to hundred parts of diluent). One day, she noticed that the calculations of Mr P. were incorrect by a factor of ten… which was a dangerous mistake. A miscalculation like this could result in serious patient harm.
Christie didn’t want to tell her mentor directly, and in all honesty, I think we’ve all been there. Correcting a colleague’s mistake isn’t always a pleasant task, especially if we know they wouldn’t be happy about it.
Christie didn’t think Mr P. was a man ‘who would be pleased or appreciative of having his student … correcting him, a man with considerable experience and professional stature in the community.’
So what did she do?
Though these suppositories were not for a waiting prescription, Christie didn’t want a potentially harmful overdose to be given out at a later date. Instead of shelving the medication as instructed, Christie ‘tripped’ and ‘lost her footing’, then firmly stepping on the suppositories to destroy them.
She apologised to Mr P., who thought nothing of it and instructed her to make another batch. This time she could ensure the correct dilution was carried out and didn’t have to risk upsetting her supervisor.
Of course, it’s always better to speak to your colleague about any potential mistake, but I think we can agree Agatha Christie certainly had a creative way of dealing with the situation!
The Power of the Drug
If you’ve ever worked in a pharmacy, you know how downright boring it can be. The daily grind of dispensing, labelling, and popping tablets from their blisters isn’t quite the thrilling vocation that was sold to you at university.
It would seem this beloved author thought the same, too, and even preferred nursing to the job of a dispenser.
Christie wrote in her autobiography that ‘dispensing was interesting for a time, but became monotonous. I should never have cared to do it as a permanent job.’
When I read this, it brought yet another smile to my face. It wasn’t because some aspects of pharmacy have remained the same in over a century, but that such an esteemed writer was in the same position as me!
(Whether that means I’ll be a famous crime writer is another matter entirely…)
The tedium of the dispensary, however, ignited a spark of imagination in Christie’s mind.
In the last part of her 1925 poem, titled ‘ In a Dispensary ‘, Christie writes:
“A philtre of Love — a philtre of Death — were they only a Sorcerer’s lore? To catch the pence, and trap the fool? Or were they something more? Beware of the Powers that never die, though Men may go their way, The Power of the Drug, for good or ill, shall it ever pass away?”
As well as having a sharp eye for detail and curiosity in how drugs worked, Christie brought a poetic and almost romantic mind to the pharmaceutical sciences.
And this is where I began to connect to this profession that I’d devoted many years to, a profession that I initially felt estranged from.
I’ve always enjoyed being both creative and scientific but could somehow never reconcile the two. Coursework, exams, and constant ‘professional development’ doesn’t give much room for creative thought, but the practice of pharmacy and medicine could not be where it is now if it were not for innovation.
After I’d read about Christie’s background and her incredible range of literary works, I felt less alone about writing. As I’ve put more importance on my writing, I’ve noticed a confidence return to me in my pharmacy practice, a confidence that was lacking in the past year.
By embracing this creative side of myself as Agatha Christie had done, I’ve found that connection with pharmacy that I was searching for.
Interested in Agatha Christie’s mysteries but don’t know where to start? Here are a few of my favourites:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Murder on the Orient Express
And Then There Were None
Remember to avoid spoilers at all costs!
- Gerald, Michael C. “Agatha Christie’s Drugs and Disease.” Pharmacy in History, vol. 34, no. 2, 1992, pp. 95–107.
- Bardell, Eunice Bonow. “Dame Agatha’s Dispensary.” Pharmacy in History, vol. 26, no. 1, 1984, pp. 13–19.
- Gerald, Michael C. “Agatha Christie’s Helpful and Harmful Health Providers: Writings on Physicians and Pharmacists.” Pharmacy in History, vol. 33, no. 1, 1991, pp. 31–39.