From the archives: Margaret Buchanan and the position of women in pharmacy

Margaret Buchanan, a founder of the Association of Women Pharmacists and the Pharmaceutical Society’s first female council member, inspired women pharmacists to aim high and strive for equality.

image of Margaret Buchanan

“Sometimes it does us good to stand aside and view ourselves, as it were from the outside … to try and realise where and what we are”[1]

These were the words spoken by Margaret Buchanan, a pharmacy tutor at Gordon Hall School of Pharmacy for Women in London at a 1908 meeting of the Association of Women Pharmacists (AWP).   

In May 1908, Buchanan’s paper, ‘The present position of women in pharmacy’, was published in The Pharmaceutical Journal. Looking at women’s employment in the profession, Buchanan found that of the around 160 women registered with the Pharmaceutical Society, two-thirds were currently employed in pharmacy. Of these, 60% were dispensers in hospitals and other institutions, 18–20% were in business but usually employed by male relatives, and 12% were dispensers for doctors in private practice. A small number of women were employed in wholesale, and those working in research and teaching could be “counted on the fingers of one hand”. Buchanan wanted to see the status of all women pharmacists improved. So what is the situation today? A 2018 article in The Pharmaceutical Journal 
refers to the research of academics from the University of Birmingham, who found that women occupy just 36% of the most senior roles in pharmacy.   

In 1908, Buchanan wrote that “the salaries of women [were] usually lower than those of men” and that “some registered men … [would] thoughtlessly advocate less salary for a woman than for themselves”. Women should not accept less pay for doing the same job as men, she added. Consider for a moment, then, that more than a century later the gender pay gap continues, with a survey conducted by The Pharmaceutical Journal 
indicating that women pharmacists “could be paid on average 6% less than their male colleagues”.   

In her paper, Buchanan went on to mention that the foundation of the AWP in 1905 had made all the difference to women in pharmacy. Almost all qualified women joined the Association. While independent of the Pharmaceutical Society, the two were nevertheless closely connected, and most women pharmacists were members of both. Membership of the AWP meant that women now had a support network and it gave them the voice that they had previously lacked. The Association’s employment bureau was especially useful in this regard. The AWP, now known as the National Association of Women Pharmacists, continues to support women in the profession to this day. 

Buchanan concluded that women pharmacists needed to “educate” themselves, the medical profession and the public. Their voices were vital to women’s development in the profession, to encourage parents to give their daughters the best training and apprenticeships, for example. In addition, they needed to make their voices heard to improve the status of pharmacy generally. The medical profession needed to be aware of the extent to which science underpinned the pharmacy qualification, and the public needed to be educated “as to the position of pharmacists”. Pharmacy for Buchanan was “a calling where competent skill and professional honour must be combined”. 

Where does Buchanan fit into the history of women in pharmacy? In her paper, she tells us nothing about her own achievements. She certainly doesn’t mention that she herself was a founder of the Association of Women Pharmacists and its first vice president, later president of the organisation. 

Buchanan’s trajectory was impressive from the start. Qualifying in 1886, she won certificates of merit in botany and materia medica. She went on to pass the major exam in 1887, winning the Pharmaceutical Society’s silver medal.   

After some years working as a hospital dispenser, and recognising the barriers to women entering the profession, she started teaching from premises in Gordon Square, London, which became the Gordon Hall School of Pharmacy for Women. Her pharmacy students were also able to gain practical training in the pharmacy at The Pavement, Clapham, which she ran together with Agnes Borrowman. Buchanan was the Pharmaceutical Society’s first woman council member, a position that she held from 1918 until she retired in 1926. 

Buchanan achieved much in her lifetime, but what stands out above all else is the way she encouraged the next generation of women pharmacists to aim high and not to be content with second best. As Elsie Hooper said of her former teacher: “As one of Miss Buchanan’s oldest students I would like to pay tribute to the great help and inspiration she has been to me … [She] has trained many of the best women pharmacists … she was a wonderful and inspiring teacher”[2]


[1] Buchanan ME. The present position of women in pharmacy. Pharm J 1908;80(3631):675–678 

[2] Deaths: Margaret Buchanan. Pharm J 1940;144(3975):10 

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, From the archives: Margaret Buchanan and the position of women in pharmacy;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2019.20206212

You may also be interested in