What do milkmaids, monks, and old-school medical treatments have in common? 

While the connection may not be clear, they’re each important pieces of the past — shaping the stories that make up the industry’s history. If you’re a pharmacy enthusiast looking to learn more, join us on this blast to the past to uncover some of the most important moments in Pharmacy History.

PioneerRx’s new series dives into the wacky, weird, and little-known stories of the past so you can have a better understanding of the present.

For the latest installment of the series, here are 5 pieces of pharmacy history you might not have known:

1. Say Thanks to the Milkmaid

In the past two years, you’ve probably given your fair share of vaccines — but did you know you have a milkmaid and a curious teenager to thank for the technology?

The story starts in smallpox-infested England. In the 1700s, millions of people experienced the fevers, fatigue, and distinct rashes associated with the disease.

In fact, 400,000 people died from smallpox every year, and ⅓ of the survivors went blind.

It was in these conditions that one young man, Edward Jenner, took to the medical field to help where he could.

At age 13, Jenner worked as an apprentice for a local county surgeon. As the record shows, while working there, Jenner heard the words that would revolutionize the entire history of treating disease.

Listening in on a conversation, Jenner heard a milkmaid say, “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.”

Jenner was perplexed but kept the knowledge in the back of his mind.

He went on to have a successful career in clinical surgery but returned back to his original interest in 1796, at the age of 47. For years, he’d heard rumors that milkmaids were immune to smallpox after they’d suffered from cowpox. Now he was ready to test the hypothesis.

Jenner concluded that cowpox not only protected against smallpox, but that it could be transmitted from one person to another as a deliberate mechanism of protection.

It was then that the first vaccine was born.


In May 1796, Jenner found a young milkmaid who had fresh cowpox lesions on her hands and arms.

He took samples from these lesions and then, a few days later, used them to inoculate an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. The boy developed mild cowpox symptoms (like low fever and discomfort) but improved quickly.

Two months later, in July 1796, Jenner inoculated the boy again. This time, though, he used matter from a fresh smallpox lesion.

No disease developed, and Jenner proved that smallpox could be effectively prevented — also opening up the possibility that other contagious diseases could be treated in the same way.

Over 200 years later, we use the same technology to save millions of lives. That’s why, today, we’re grateful for intuitive milkmaids and eavesdropping ears.

2. The Mother of Pharmacy: Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf

March is Women’s History Month, and all month, we’re celebrating the achievements of all women: especially those in pharmacy.

Women have a long and impressive history behind the counter, and in the US, that all started with Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf.

Greenleaf was a wife, mother of 12, and the first female pharmacist in the United States.

Born in 1691, Greenleaf started her career in pharmacy working alongside her husband, a Harvard-educated physician. As her husband worked with patients, Greenleaf prepped medications, which sparked her interest in pharmacy. As her passion grew, she made a bold move.

She decided to leave her hometown of Cambridge, MA and head to Boston to open up her own apothecary shop. And it paid off.

Greenleaf become a well-respected pharmacist in the Boston area and served patients all over the Thirteen Colonies until her death in 1762. At the time, she was one of only 32 New England apothecaries (and she was certainly the only female).


But nearly 300 years later, millions of women have followed in her footsteps. In 2012, the American Pharmacists Association featured Greenleaf as one of 17 exceptional women responsible for advancing the profession, proving that women really can do it all.

To learn more about Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf and 9 other women who shaped the industry, visit our blog on RxLocal, Celebrating the Influence of Female Pharmacists.

3. The Underdog That Came Out on Top

Over the years, you’ve dispensed a number of popular drugs, but do you know which one reigns supreme?

According to sales reports generated over the past 25 years, Lipitor — a statin manufactured by Pfizer — is the best-selling drug of all time. While it held a patent under Pfizer, Lipitor generated over $125B in sales. But it wasn’t always first in line.

When it was first manufactured in 1997, Lipitor was the fifth drug created in its class. And in this class, there were already 3 other blockbuster drugs generating over $1B in sales. It seemed unlikely, then, that Lipitor would get an edge over them.

But an early 1996 trial proved that Lipitor was more effective than its competitors, and Pfizer’s marketing team ran with it.

When Lipitor launched, Pfizer spent tens of millions of dollars in TV ads, including commercials and even cameos on popular TV shows like “ER.” Pfizer’s team didn’t stop there, though.

They also went out in the field and paid visits to cardiologists and family doctors, stressing the effectiveness of Lipitor (and touting its lower prices).

When Lipitor’s patent expired in late 2011, generics opened up and Pfizer’s profits dropped.

In the years following, other drugs passed Lipitor in overall revenue. Today, Humira tops the charts: generating over $19.8B in 2020 alone. Other top contenders include Eliquis, Enbrel, Stelara, and Keytruda.

Despite the changes, though, Lipitor will always be remembered as the underdog that made it to the top.

4. 1,000 Years in the Business

If you’re a second, third, or even fourth-generation pharmacist, you know the importance of heritage: and so does one pharmacy in Florence.

Sitting amid the scenery of Italy, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy has a history that dates back to the Middle Ages, earning it the title of “oldest pharmacy in the world.”

The pharmacy was founded in 1221 by a group of Dominican monks living in Florence’s first basilica.

There, at the basilica, the monks grew their own garden. With the crops, they created balms, creams, and elixirs to treat everyday illnesses. These solutions were shared around the basilica for years, right up until the 16th century — when the monks decided to open their doors to the public.


Outsiders were instantly drawn in, as the pharmacy touted remedies and innovations not seen anywhere else.

The monks had developed, for example, rose water facial spray for hydration; they created a liquor to help numb pain in childbirth; and they even developed an aromatic vinegar to prevent fainting. It’s safe to say sales were booming.

Today, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy still stands, sporting many of its original recipes — though it acts as a boutique rather than a fully-functioning pharmacy.

But if you can’t make it to Florence, you can find a variety of fragrances, skincare, and body and bath products on the Santa Maria Novella website.

5. Ritter’s Remedy for Allergies: Cocaine

It’s the spring season, and by now, you’ve probably already felt the sniffling, sneezing, and itchy eyes associated with allergies.

If you’re a pharmacist, you probably try an antihistamine. If you’re Thomas Jefferson Ritter, though, you try cocaine.

From past Pharmacy History blogs, we’ve already seen that Ritter's remedies were unconventional (including inhaling chloroform to treat asthma) — but he didn’t stop there.

In his 1910 book, Mother's Remedies: Over One Thousand Tried and Tested Remedies from Mothers of the United States and Canada, Ritter offers up a solution for those suffering from hay fever: spraying a “four-percent solution of cocaine” up the nose.

While it might sound wacky now, cocaine was a common treatment back in Ritter’s day: prescribed for everything from indigestion to fatigue to eye pain and more. It makes sense, then, that Ritter would assume a quick spray could help patients feel better.

For now, though, we’d advise you to stick to Flonase.

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