From small shops and humble beginnings to a nearly $500B industry, pharmacy has a rich history — one that’s been well-documented all along the way.

Even still, there are plenty of stories that sit under the surface, waiting to be heard. In this new PioneerRx series, we dive into some of the most interesting pieces of pharmacy history, with an emphasis on the wacky, weird, and little-known stories you never learned in school.

Here you’ll learn about the people, practices, and innovations that revolutionized the world of pharmacy. And more importantly, you’ll have fun doing it.

For this edition of the series, here are 5 pieces of history you might not have known:

1. How the Soda Fountain Got Its Start

In the 20th century, life was simpler (and, in this case, sweeter).

After a long day at the office, you’d swing open a door, take a seat at a high-top counter, and take a swig of a soda concocted just for you. You’d give the soda jerk a smile, chat amongst other patrons, and enjoy the rest of your evening.

Enter the old-fashioned soda fountains of the 1900s.

In a past Pharmacy History blog, we learned that pharmacists are responsible for the soft drinks we sip on today — from Coca-Cola to Pepsi to Dr. Pepper — but why’d we decide to start serving these drinks up in pharmacies, anyway?

Back in the 1850s, when soda fountains first got their start, pharmacists dispensed medications in all different dosages. These included pills to creams to, of course, liquids. Instead of serving them outright, pharmacists mixed the medicines with other ingredients to make them more palatable.

Some experimentation gave rise to what we now know as soda.

Soda ingredients varied, but cocaine and caffeine were two of the most popular ingredients available. So as the years went on, more and more patients swung by the soda fountain for an afternoon pick-me-up.

Old-fashioned soda fountain

Soda fountains really got their start, though, during Prohibition in the 1920s.

At the turn of the century, bars and pubs got the boot, and in their place, many Americans looked to soda fountains to socialize and get an extra shot of energy.

In fact, one reporter in the 1920s wrote, “The soda fountain is the most valuable, most useful, most profitable, and altogether most beneficial business building feature assimilated by the drugstore in a generation…”

As the years went on, so did other innovations — like soda syrup, dispensers, and the almighty milkshake — that made sure a soda fountain was found in every pharmacy. But as sodas started being bottled and sold everywhere, the soda fountain slowly lost its place in the pharmacy, and pharmacists turned to other streams of revenue.

Now, soda fountains are a unique piece of history you’ll find in few pharmacies across the nation.

But if you’re lucky enough to visit one (or even own one yourself), know that you’re a part of one of the most important innovations in the world of pharmacy.

2. 800 Years of Fighting For Our Rights

Long before pharmacists were serving up sodas, they were fighting for recognition among leaders and laymen alike.

In the early days of medicine, physicians and pharmacists practiced under the same umbrella. That all changed, though, in 1240 AD, when Emperor Frederick II took the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.

During his reign, Frederick determined that pharmacists and physicians had different responsibilities and should therefore be governed by different regulations.

Frederick officially separated the two branches and gave individual recognition to pharmacists and physicians.

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

This did not mean, though, that the two were placed on equal footing.

Pharmacists were still considered subordinate to physicians and had to operate under a physician’s authority. The best pharmacists, though, worked among members of the royal family and spent their time writing comprehensive encyclopedias of drugs.

Four hundred years later, in 1618, the first of these encyclopedias was published.

The London Pharmacopoeia contained the first list of approved drugs in English, along with information on how each drug should be prepared.

The London Pharmacopoeia, 1618

This list, though, was heavily regulated by the British monarchy: only drugs that had the king’s approval could be dispensed, and little room was left for experimentation. The monarchy feared that pharmacists would revolt, so they regularly sent physicians to pharmacies to inspect shops and ensure that pharmacists were following the rules.

In this way, medicine acted as a method of control — an issue that, hundreds of years later, pharmacists still fight against.

3. Lewis, Clark, and Mercury Latrines

Lewis and Clark are some of the most famous names in American history. From 1804-to 1806, they charted the entire western half of the United States and opened up the nation we know today. But the places they stayed might have been a mystery, if not for one potent pill.

Prior to their expedition, Lewis and Clark knew they’d face exposure, disease, and digestive problems.

In anticipation of these troubles, they packed their bags with plenty of medications, including Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pill. This fast-acting purgative contained 10 gains of mercury chloride (or calomel) per serving.

Dr. Rush's Bilious Pill, from the Smithsonian Museum

While pharmacists today certainly wouldn’t prescribe mercury for digestive problems, in Lewis and Clark’s day, it was a go-to for many conditions, including constipation. It made sense, then, that Lewis and Clark took the pills and shared them with the men on their expedition.

Centuries later, historians can thank Dr. Rush for helping them locate several of Lewis and Clark’s original campsites.

By testing old latrine waste for mercury, historians were able to pinpoint several of the spots where Lewis and Clark stayed.

The Archaeological Institute of America estimates that Lewis and Clark camped at over 600 sites in their 28-month trek, many of which were able to be tracked down by mercury testing.

It probably wasn’t what the explorers had in mind when packing a few bottles of Dr. Rush’s pills, but it certainly made a difference for historians.

4. Thor Was a Pharmacist

If you’re a fan of Marvel movies, you know all about the god of thunder:  the one who wields a powerful hammer, carries superhuman strength, and becomes a fighting force in protecting the Multiverse.

But the face behind Thor — Australian actor Chris Hemsworth — didn’t have as edgy of an upbringing.

In a 2015 interview, Chris revealed that before his acting career, he worked at a pharmacy. Instead of dishing out pills or helping patients directly, Chris was given another task less-than-fit for a superhero.

Chris Hemsworth

As he explains, “I worked for a pharmacy that would rent out [breast pumps] for pregnant women.” He goes on to explain that his job was to clean the pumps and ensure they were ready for the next expecting mother.

Luckily, Chris’s career in pharmacy didn’t last long, and instead, he found success on movie sets.

One of his projects, Avengers: End Game, is the second highest-grossing film of all time (right after Avatar), with nearly $3 trillion grossed. And Chris is worth an estimated $130 million on his own.

But if acting didn’t work out, we’re sure Chris would be welcome back to the pharmacy — but hopefully with a different set of duties this time.

5. The Weirdest Remedies of All

If you thought the cures in Mother’s Remedies by Thomas Jefferson Ritter were weird, wait until you hear what’s in Bald’s Leechbook.

Bald’s Leechbook is one of the earliest known medical textbooks in the English language (Old English), thought to have been written in the mid-9th and early 10th centuries.

Bald's Leechbook

Today, there’s only one copy of Bald’s Leechbook in the world, which is held at the British Library in London.

The remedies held in this one book, though, are nothing short of astounding.

Remedies are listed in head-to-toe order, covering everything from small scrapes to demonic possessions. Some of the most notable include:

  • For cataracts: Mixing the ash of burnt periwinkles with honey and rubbing it directly into the patient’s eyes
  • For swollen eyes: Catching a live crab, cutting off its eyes, and putting them against the patient’s neck
  • For a nosebleed: Sticking a bushel of barley into the patient’s ear
  • For warts: Applying a mixture of dog urine and mouse blood to the affected area on the patient’s body
  • For insanity: Killing a porpoise, making a whip out of its skin, and whipping the patient with it

Good luck getting that past a pharmacist today.

Ready to Take Your Pharmacy Further?
Request Software Demo