100 Years Later, Pharmacy Retains Its Past

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Pharmacy Times, October 2020, Volume 88, Issue 10

In 1920, Johnson & Johnson created the slogan “Your Druggist is More Than a Merchant. Try the Drug Store First.”

Imagine a 1920s era store lined with glass-fronted, mahogany breakfronts filled with ceramic jars ornately labeled in Latin.

Out front, customers enjoy root beer floats at a marble counter. In the rear workroom, some prescriptions are still made using mortar, pestle, and scale, although the Industrial Revolution of the late 1880s had introduced enteric-coated pills, gelatin capsules, and tablets, making prefabricated medications more available.1 Lederle, Johnson & Johnson, Mulford’s, Parke-Davis, Smith-Kline, and Wyeth products line the shelves.2 Fast sellers include Sloan’s Liniment, St. Joseph’s Worm Syrup, and white pine and tar syrup for coughs.3 If this store is in a rural area, the pharmacist is likely to be a medicinal drug retailer—often called an apothecary or druggist—and also a primary care provider. With few physicians available, people seek health care advice from the pharmacist.

In 1920, Johnson & Johnson created the slogan “Your Druggist is More Than a Merchant. Try the Drug Store First.” It emphasized druggists’ scientific background and ability to help improve community health.4

Differences and Similarities

Druggists 100 years ago were similar in many ways to today’s pharmacists. Similarities included a need for advanced education and the preponderance of pharmacy practitioners working in community settings. Today’s primary care physician shortage is also similar,5 as is the presence of a devastating global pandemic.6 The 1918 influenza pandemic was ending, though it must have seemed like an endless curse. The United States in the 1920s had increased regulation of recreational drugs, just as today there is increased regulations for opioids. Prohibition had outlawed alcohol in January 1920 and would continue until 1933.7 Marijuana was used as an alternative to alcohol and for a variety of complaints, and it remained legal until 1937.8

Pharmacists were educated professionals. By 1920, 54 pharmacy schools were operating, many at major universities. Pharmacy students at accredited schools had to complete a 3-year program. The profession, having standardized drug preparation, was approaching the 100th anniversary of the National Formulary (NF) and its 10th decennial review. The Journal of the American Medical Society published a letter in 1920 from a concerned and seemingly grumpy physician, Dr. W.A. Bastedo, discussing the NF.

His narrative called the NF “a book of convenience for the pharmacist” and lamented his colleagues’ propensity to prescribe “old-fashioned galenicals” or medicine prepared by extracting 1 or more active plant constituents. Bastedo urged physicians to eschew the NF and instead use the American Medical Association’s pocket-sized Useful Drugs. Yet he demanded increased participation in the NF revision from medical schools and physicians’ professional associations.9

Limited But Growing Formulary

Review of Bastedo’s comments also shed light on common or emerging drugs. He asked the NF to add glandular drugs (eg, epinephrin [sic], corpus luteum, ovarian extract, etc), and include the percent of pure alkaloid in each alkaloidal salt, noting specifically that “morphin [sic], sulphate contains only three-fourths its weight of morphine.” Bastedo referred to drugs dosed in minims (1/60 of a fluiddram) and suggested some new drugs, such as acetaminophen, be added. He also asked for the NF to restore whisky and brandy to its list, writing, “With our new Prohibition laws, these medicinal liquids will be as precious as potent tinctures and will need standards if they never

did before.”9

The NF listed comparatively few drugs. Apothecaries did not label prescription vials dispensed to patients with the name of the drug. That requirement only became widespread in the 1960s.

Medicalization—generally considered a movement to convince people that conditions that did not necessarily need treatment now required treatment—could be found in the 1920s, also. Listerine first became available in 1879 as a surgical antiseptic. It became an OTC mouthwash in 1914, and shortly thereafter, its manufacturer popularized an obscure medical condition called halitosis. The company profited $8 million over the next 7 years.10 A Listerine advertisement suggests that counterfeit products were a problem then, too. A 1920 ad warns, “Listerine, the safe antiseptic, is never sold in bulk….You can avoid fraudulent imitations by insisting on obtaining Listerine in

the original package.”11

Final insights come from 3 ragged, water-stained, and worn binders of prescriptions the authors found in the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy’s basement. The absence of prescriptions for antibiotics is startling; there were none until sulfa made its debut in the late 1920s. Insulin was not available until 1922. The most common prescriptions in the book were codeine, iron, morphine, nitroglycerin, quinine, and tonics.


The 1920 druggist and the 2020 pharmacist, were they to meet, would have much to discuss. No doubt, the 1920 practitioner would find today’s number of medications and current scope of practice fascinating. The 2020 pharmacist would have to commend the 1920 druggist’s ability to do much with very little and applaud the druggist’s close connection to the community.

Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP, is the assistant director of the Office of Pharmacy Professional Development at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy in Storrs.


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