From Shaman To Pharmin’: Pharmacy’s Lost Heritage (Part 2)

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traditional medicineIn Part 1 of this article, Robert Gosstray –  Midlifexpress’s popular author and  resident pharmaceutical polymath –  began an exploration of pharmacy’s lost secrets. Here is the sequel.

Up until the late 1950’s, pharmacists mixed 90 per cent of their medicines on site (called extemporaneous dispensing).   Nowadays, everything is pre-packed and there is virtually no extemporaneous dispensing. I regret this up to a point – there was a certain charm, elegance and skill in the dispensing methods which are now totally lost. Modern pharmacies have even lost their distinctive smell as all the vast array of natural and exotic substances, all leaching their subtle odours into the air, were replaced by a sterile array of packaged pills and tablets.

Since we had  large stocks of poisons and narcotics, we also had very tight controls on sales and recording. We were governed by laws from various Medical Acts, Pharmacy Acts and Poisons Acts, with multitudes of Government and semi-Government agencies all regularly sending out inspectors to check on us. I always made sure that everything balanced in regard to narcotics—we had to record everything exactly, which was only right.

However, working on the assumption that inspectors were appointed and paid to inspect and detect faults, errors or carelessness, I always made sure there were a few minor discrepancies here and there. These were duly found and reported on, and I gave the inspector a nice cup of tea, while nodding agreeably to his helpful suggestions of how I could be more efficient. Everyone was happy- he could report to his superiors about the faults he had found and I would receive a gentle reprimand or advice on how to conduct myself properly.

Forensic pharmacy relating to the laws surrounding the manufacture, selling, storage and recording of poisons, narcotics and potent drugs, was a large and interesting part of pharmacy practice. I abided by the majority of the laws but broke a few when it was in the interests of our patients. The various poisons and drugs were classified into eight schedules. Dangerous poisons were sch.1, prescription only drugs were sch.4 and narcotics were sch.8.

I was fascinated by all the ancient schedule 1 poisons. If we sold any, we had to enter the details in a poisons book. The sales included Pitts Wheat, a strychnine based grain for  foxes, rats and mice, Edison’s Exterminator (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) for ants, flies, earwigs, fleas and other vermin, tartar emetic containing antimony  for ants, errant husbands (thank you Agatha Christie) and making you vomit, arsenic, mercury and lead salts, cyanides, corrosive acids and alkalis, and many plant-based poisons from belladonna, aconite, foxglove, oleander and castor-oil plants.

The regulations on what was dangerous changed with bewildering speed at times, an example being Selsun shampoo which was listed in schedule 1. This meant everyone with dandruff had to sign the poisons book, giving reasons for purchase. It contained selenium which had been part of yet another Agatha Christie plot involving cheating husbands and murderous wives, but, as always, our authorities over-reacted, fearing an Australian outbreak of shampoo-based homicides. Things like Shelltox pest strips and Lawson’s Bronchitis mixture were also on sch.1 for a while, which was equally ridiculous and comical.

From the 1960’s onwards, all this quaint, charming, and slow-paced way of life changed rapidly, as drug companies and Government researchers took over by developing thousands of new, expensive compounds in an attempt to guarantee perfect health for everyone (if they had money). That will be my next daring treatise on our drugged-out society.

Robert Gosstray

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist and the resident health writer for Midlifexpress. He is the author of The Pharmacist's Secrets: Drugs, lies and money.

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