Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Quakers and Pharmacy

Quakers played an important role in the development of pharmacy as in independent profession. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, many Quakers set up businesses as pharmacists. In 1841, Quakers William Allen, John Bell and Jacob Bell were instrumental in establishing the Pharmaceutical Society, to oversee and regulate the profession.

Quakers sought to make a living from among the ‘innocent trades’ – those not involved with the military and which could be seen as useful. They were barred for many years from attending English universities, and hence from many professions, including medicine. Pharmacy was an alternative, and many Quakers set up businesses around the country.

One of the first Quaker pharmacists of whom we have detailed knowledge is Silvanus Bevan.  A Welsh Quaker from Swansea, he served an apprenticeship with Quaker apothecary Thomas Mayleigh (1667-1732), and then set up his own pharmacy at Plough Court, Lombard St, where he was joined by his brother Timothy (1704–1786). Plough Court also became a base for scientific research and Silvanus was elected to the Royal Society in 1725.

Another early pharmacist was Thomas Corbyn (1711-91) – a notoriously ‘austere’ Quaker, nicknamed ‘Pope Corbyn’, who had an extensive trans-Atlantic trade in the period up to the American War of Independence. Papers relating to Corbyn’s business are held by the Wellcome Institute.

Silvanus and Timothy Bevan were succeeded by Timothy’s son, Thomas Gurney Bevan (1753–1814). The business was strained by his refusal, on grounds of conscience, to supply drugs to armed vessels in the Royal Navy, but it survived nonetheless, owing in part to its ethical standards and the quality of its products.

In 1792, William Allen (1770 – 1843) joined Plough Court.  When Thomas Gurney Bevan retired, Allen became a partner, and promoted the use of the laboratory at Plough Court for the use of scientists. In 1798, he was joined by Luke Howard (1772 – 1864), known for his classification of clouds, still used today. After a few years, Howard set up his own successful laboratory which, among other things, supplied ether to the Quaker scientist, John Dalton.

Another early Quaker pharmacist was Frederick Smith (1757-1823). He was sacked from the Post Office when he refused to give evidence in a robbery because of his objection to capital punishment. He returned to take over his father’s pharmacy business in Haymarket, London. 

One of his apprentices, John Bell (1776-1849) married Smith’s eldest daughter and set up in business in nearby Oxford Street. At this time, apothecaries were moving away from dispensing drugs towards something more like modern day general practitioners. The 1815 Apothecaries Act was to have given the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries the power to licence all medical practitioners, including midwives and pharmacists. John Bell’s son Jacob became the spokesman for the pharmacists, arguing successfully that they were in the best position to regulate their own trade and achieving exemption from the Act. In 1841, John and Jacob Bell and William Allen became the founders of the Pharmaceutical Society, to regulate the dispensing of drugs in England.  Allen was its first president.

Jacob Bell was a frustrated artist, whose collected papers include cartoons of daily life in the pharmacy. He was evidently a rebel, who once turned up at Quaker Meeting dressed as a woman, leading him to be disowned by the Meeting. The business he and his father founded still exists today.

A career or apprenticeship in pharmacy was to prove a springboard for many Quakers. John Fothergill (1711-1780) served an apprenticeship in Bradford before going on to study medicine at Edinburgh University (where Quakers were allowed to study). An early apprentice at Plough Court was William Cookworthy (1705-80), the first person to develop porcelain manufacture in Britain, while botanist William Curtis (1746-99) began life as an apprentice to another Quaker pharmacist, Thomas Talwin.

Two Quaker pharmacists from Bristol played a big role in the development of the Quaker trade in chocolate. Around 1728, Walter Churchman patented a hydraulic mill to grind cocoa beans to a fine powder, allowing him to produce a better quality product than his rivals. His business was bought by fellow pharmacist, Joseph Fry (1728 – 1787), who promoted chocolate as a healthful alternative to alcohol.

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