For all of the important achievements and memorable moments in pharmacy, there are plenty that sit under the surface. You didn’t learn about them in classroom lectures or discuss them in day-to-day conversations, but the stories are still there, and they’re waiting for you to find them.

To help you on your way, Pharmacy History dives into the wacky, weird, and little-known pieces of the past. In this series, we hope to give you a more rich (and interesting) knowledge of the profession that we all know and love.

To kick off this round, here are 5 pharmacy stories you might not have known:

1. Agatha Christie: Crime Writer, Poison Expert

Agatha Christie is the best-selling writer of all time. Her detective novels and plays have sold over two billion copies in 100 different languages. In the dark, dismal landscapes of Christie’s novels, crime runs rampant — including murder.

The means for murder varies widely: from drownings to stabbings to poisonings. In fact, Agatha Christie used poison to kill off her characters more than any other crime writer. Poisons included anything from arsenic to cyanide to strychnine, all administered in injections, drinks, and sometimes even cigarettes.

Clearly, Christie had a deep knowledge of the chemical interactions that create poison. But where did she pick it up?

Turns out, before her time as a crime writer, Christie had an impressive career in healthcare. In World War I, she volunteered as a nurse in her native Torquay, England. Soon after, though, she was transferred to a nearby dispensary, where she took on the role of an apothecary apprentice (translation: pharmacy technician). In this role, Christie learned all about chemicals, compounds, and of course, poisons.

By the time she picked up the pen and started writing, she was an expert. Her fans were grateful for the knowledge, but her characters almost certainly weren’t.

To learn more about Christie’s lethal concoctions, check out A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie.

2. A Symbol Shrouded in Mystery

The Rx symbol has been around for thousands of years, acting as an abbreviation for prescriptions of all kinds. Most historians agree that the Rx symbol is derived from the Latin word recipere, which means “to prepare.” When abbreviated, the symbols look similar to the English letters “Rx.” There isn’t a consensus with this theory, though, and one other option is far more interesting to consider.

Some historians believe that the Rx symbol actually has roots in Egyptian mythology — more specifically, in the Eye of Horus.

As the story goes, the god Horus lost his eye after being attacked by an evil deity. Desperate, his mother called out to Thoth, the god of magic and knowledge, to heal him. Thoth answered the request and restored Horus’s eye. From then on, to ancient Egyptians, the Eye of Horus represented god’s willingness to heal the sick and suffering.

As such, they incorporated the symbol into their medical practices. Early physicians and pharmacists used amulets of the eye in medical rituals, and patients wore them for protection. 

When transcription became more common, historians believe that the Eye of Horus was still used, but over time, it got simplified to the current “Rx” symbol. Controversy still surrounds this theory, but the symbols’ similarity is worth noting.

Do you see the resemblance?

On the left, the modern Rx symbol; on the right, the Eye of Horus

3. The Only Pharmacy in the Country

If you ever think your pharmacy is stretched too thin, at least you’re not the only one in the country. Vatican Pharmacy can’t say the same.

As Vatican City’s one-stop shop for prescriptions and patient care, it sees an average of 2,000 patients per day — earning it the title of “the busiest pharmacy in the world.”

Vatican City only has a population of 825, so the majority of patients at the pharmacy come from Italy and other surrounding areas. Interestingly, the drug approval process in Vatican City is typically much faster than in other countries, so patients go there to get medications months or even years before they would be able to elsewhere.

With such a large non-native patient base, Vatican Pharmacy is also the only pharmacy in the world that accepts foreign prescriptions.

To keep up with demand, the pharmacy has to keep a rotating staff of nearly 70. Even with such a large team, though, we imagine it’s hard to take a breather. Maybe having the Pope as your patient makes up for it.

4. Bayer: From Heart Attacks to Heroin

Bayer is one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, distributing medications like Aleve, Alka-Seltzer, and of course, Aspirin — one of the best measures to prevent heart attacks in people at risk. Bayer didn’t get its start there, though.

In fact, it has a long and impressive history that dates all the way back to 1863. With 19th-century roots, it originally manufactured 19th-century remedies, including heroin.

Heroin was created in 1874 as an alternative to morphine. Originally, it was used to treat cough in cases of respiratory disease, and later, to combat morphine and codeine addiction. It was quickly dubbed a “wonder drug” and started circulating in medical practices on a small scale.

By 1898, Bayer got involved and opened up mass production around the world. Not even a year later, though, doctors started noting heroin’s addictive properties. They found that patients required increasingly higher doses of the drug and that many eventually formed chemical dependencies.

Naturally, drug abuse ensued. Heroin started to be used recreationally, and soon, it earned the title of a narcotic drug.

After years of legal battles, Bayer pulled the plug on heroin production in 1910. In 1924, the United States banned the sale, importation, and manufacturing of heroin; and in 1925, the League of Nations banned it around the world.

The damage was already done, though. Hundreds of millions of people used, abused, and died from heroin overdose, including celebrities like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Sid Vicious. An estimated 1 million Americans still use heroin today.

5. Chest Pain? Try Dynamite

Nitroglycerin is a popular medication used to treat symptoms of angina. It works by dilating the arteries in the heart, which improves blood flow and reduces chest pain in patients.

For all of the lives it saves, though, nitroglycerin has the potential to take just as many, when it’s put in a different form: dynamite.

Yes, you read that right. The main active ingredient of dynamite is nitroglycerin. In its diluted form, nitroglycerin is safe as a medical treatment. In its concentrated form, though, it’s highly explosive, proving just how volatile chemical compounds can be.

A brief bit of history about nitroglycerin: it was first discovered in 1847 by Italian chemist Asciano Sobrero. By the late 1860s, it was being manufactured in factories across Europe. One of those factories — which was run by Nobel Prize benefactor, Alfred Nobel — ended up being particularly important.

Some workers at Nobel’s factory suffered from angina, but when they were at work during the week, they found that their chest pain subsided. On the weekends, though, when they weren’t at work, it returned. As it was later discovered, exposure to nitroglycerin in the factory temporarily relieved workers’ symptoms.

With this discovery, the compound was introduced in clinical settings and became an important medical innovation that we still use to this day.

Now you know why nitroglycerin really blew up.

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