‘I yearn for the simplicity and variety of the old high street chemist’

Jul 05, 2019
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A recent trip to the pharmacy had Brian thinking about the old high street chemist of the '40s and '50s. Source: Getty Images

I was waiting for a prescription to be prepared at my local chemist recently when it occurred to me how such establishments have changed over the years, especially since I was a boy in the late-1940s. Today’s chemists (I actually think they prefer to be known as ‘pharmacies’ these days) are little more than a supermarket specialising in ready-packaged drugs, cosmetics and health foods.

I’m sure the chemist is someone who has been educated way above the level now required. I think they only really come into their own is when a particular patient/customer requests information about their specific complaint and how to treat it.

A lot of people prefer to call on their chemist in such instances, rather than waste the time of, and pay fees to, their family doctor, and in virtually all cases this is quite satisfactory. The chemist can offer advice and treatment for such mundane complaints as head colds, hemorrhoids, headaches, smelly feet and numerous other silly illnesses, plus offer advice on the more serious too.

But as I say, what struck me, for no discernable reason as I sat there, was how much the business of retail medicine has changed in 70 or more years. For instance, all these drugs our doctor now gives us, which come in foil blister packs, each pill isolated from any others to maintain sterility. When I was a kid the chemist, in a lot of instances, actually made the prescribed pills on the premises, then counted out the number wanted on one of those special boards designed for the purpose and tipped them into a glass jar — no sign of sterility or anything like that and yet we all seemed to survive. Even the drugs he knocked up, either in pill form or as a liquid, as specified by the family doctor, would seem very simple concoctions compared to the stuff we cram down our throats today. Antibiotics and most of those wonderful (and dangerous), chemicals had yet to be discovered in the 1940s … I’d guess doctors really only had about a dozen choices back then, which had to more or less cover everything!

Chemists also actually sold chemicals in those days too. I could (and this is the truth), go to my local chemist when I was about 15 years old, and buy sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal powder, to make gunpowder! Oh, we weren’t going to blow up the local council offices or anything like that, we just wanted to make our own fireworks for November 5. It was completely legal as far as I am aware, and the chemist, who obviously must have known what I wanted the stuff for, never gave me any warnings about the dangers of handling such materials. It really was a different world in those days, no occupational health and safety or anything like that!

The same applied to concentrated sulphuric acid, which I needed for some photographic work I was doing, involving the bleaching of some colour pictures; he poured me a bottle full, no questions asked. It never crossed anyone’s mind then, to do anything harmful with all this chemistry.

I used to like wandering around my old chemist shop, with its row upon row of mysterious bottles, some big enough to hold several gallons of whatever was in there, some quite small; and then there was all the dry stuff too, powders mainly, then ointments and pieces of wood such as licorice root. A stick of that would last all day and it was small enough to hide in your pocket at school, so the teacher never found it.

Some things had very odd names, like Syrup of Squills, Sweet Spirit of Nitre, Paragoric and Tincture of Myrrh. I really have no idea what these various concoctions were supposed to do, but it all must have been something, mustn’t it?

It’s just not the same fun, going into a pharmacies these days — all they sell is the very same stuff I can see in a host of other shops down the high street, most of it nothing to do with what I would call the stock of a chemist. Yet I suppose that is just what the whole world is coming to — standardisation and very little real choice. Perhaps that’s why I still sometimes yearn to be back in 1948!

Do you remember the chemist shops of old? What strange concoctions do you recall?

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