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175 years of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

The Museum was set up to be a scientific reference resource of materia medica for students of the Society’s newly established School of Pharmacy.

Photograph of the original Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Source: Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

October 2017 marks the 175th anniversary of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) Museum.

The Museum was established in 1842, a year after the Society was formed. It was created as a scientific reference collection for the students of the Society’s newly formed School of Pharmacy. Jacob Bell, the Society’s founder, wrote in the first edition of The Pharmaceutical Journal that the School should be equipped with a laboratory, a library and a “complete museum of materia medica comprising specimens of good and bad drugs.”

Theophilus Redwood was the first museum curator. He was also the first librarian, the professor of pharmacy at the Society’s school, and the sub-editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal. Along with a museum committee, Redwood encouraged donations from RPS Council members, officers, Society members and pharmaceutical businesses to build up a collection.

By 1863, the museum had expanded to occupy three rooms of the Society’s headquarters. According to The Pharmaceutical Journal in 1858, “many of the early supporters of the Society vied with each other in presenting the most rare and curious specimens, as well as others varying in quality to make the collections as complete as possible.”

The museum was principally used as a source of lecture specimens by the School’s professors. However, in the early days, it did not see regular use by students:

“The approach of these [Society’s] examinations could always be predicted from the group of eager students gathered around the drawers. But at other times, and except for the occasional visit of one or two of Dr Pereira’s class bent on verifying some point in his morning’s lecture, the Museum was not much frequented by us”. RW Giles, Student, 1847–1848.

Unsurprisingly, in view of his many roles, Redwood admitted that he neglected the museum. After his retirement in 1867, the Society agreed to a full-time curator post, at an annual salary of £150. Between 1867 and 1872, there were three museum curators.

Specimens in view at the old Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Source: Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

The appointment of Edward Morrell Holmes in 1872 was a significant turning point in the museum’s history. Holmes was curator for 50 years until his retirement in 1922. He built up the museum collections to more than 20,000 specimens. He collected samples of crude drugs from around the world, established separate teaching collections, published full catalogues and reports, wrote more than 350 articles and notes for The Pharmaceutical Journal, and was an active member of the Museums Association. His achievements far exceeded the Society’s definition of his post: “They reflect the man, not the office, for there is no record that his predecessors did much else than keep the place tidy.”

A new chapter in the Museum’s history began in 1937, when the Society decided to establish an historical collection. Agnes Lothian, the librarian and curator from 1940 to 1968, built up the collection through purchases, gifts and bequests, particularly in the areas of ceramics, caricatures, and brand name medicines.

After the Second World War, changes in pharmacy and pharmacy education meant that the original materia medica collections were no longer as relevant to students.

As their research potential was still recognised, the herbarium and materia medica were transferred to the University of Bradford in 1965, and then to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1982.

In 1976, after 135 years at Bloomsbury Square, the Society moved to new headquarters in Lambeth. From the outset, objects from the museum’s collections were displayed throughout the building, from the basement to the fifth floor.

Since the 1980s, with the appointment of specialist curators, museum staff have developed a wide range of activities from conservation programmes and computer cataloguing, to outreach events, exhibitions and publications. The collections — of some 45,000 objects — form the foundation for communicating the history of pharmacy to the profession and to the wider world.

The Society moved to its current headquarters in East Smithfield, London in 2015. Today, the museum displays are concentrated on the ground floor and are accessible to all visitors.

Display at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in East Smithfield, London

Source: MAG / The Pharmaceutical Journal

Opening times: Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm. The museum displays are open to all visitors and admission is free, although donations are welcome.

Guided tours: Please contact the museum team to book a guided tour of the museum displays. We welcome bookings for group visits. Charges may apply.

The museum staff may be contacted on 020 7572 2210/museum@rpharms.com

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2017.20203760

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Supplementary images

  • Photograph of the original Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society
  • Specimens in view at the old Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society
  • Display at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in East Smithfield, London

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