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Making medicines today is a multi-billion dollar business dominated by large companies. But this is a relatively new development. Before the twentieth century, most medicines were made locally, by apothecaries or pharmacists following prescriptions written by doctors or given in books of recipes — pharmacopoeia. The development of new medicines was a small-scale pursuit, which occupied some doctors and scientists. Many of the medicines people used had been employed for thousands of years; some still are today. This exhibition offers a chance to look at the way medicines were made, understood, and used in England in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.


The Origins of Pharmacy

The way people in Britain used medicines to treat diseases was based on theories and prescriptions that had originated in Greek and Roman times. The most influential ancient works on medical theory were by classical physicians, especially Hippocrates and Galen. For pharmacy the key authority was Dioscorides’ ‘Materia Medica’. (The coloured images on these Essay pages are taken from an Italian edition of this text.) Dioscorides emphasised the use of a wide variety of plants, minerals and animal parts mainly in simple preparations.

Disease was thought to be caused by an imbalance of the four ‘humours’ within the body — blood, black bile, choler (or yellow bile), phlegm. Medicines were designed to remedy this by heating or cooling the body or by purging or causing vomiting.

Classical ideas about pharmacy were expanded and developed by Arabic medical writers, such as Avicenna. They created more complicated medicines using larger numbers of ingredients, and introduced new technologies to medicine, particularly distilling.

In the middle ages, classical and Christian ideas on health were mixed. The Christian sense of a world in which everything was created for the benefit and use of man strongly influenced medicine. Everything in nature was potentially a medicine.