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Bullen’s portrait of prison pharmacy

Roger Jacob looks into the work of the first pharmacist at HM Prison Brixton

by Roger Jacob

Roger Jacob looks into the work of the first pharmacist at HM Prison Brixton

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I was interested to see in the February (2008) issue of Your Society (PDF 330K), the name of Frederic Bullen in respect of his donation of a set of promotional calendars in 1956 to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s museum. The reason for my interest is that Bullen was one of my predecessors at HM Prison Brixton.

Frederic Edward Bullen was an interesting character. He registered on 14 July 1905 and his address was given as 70 Helix Road, Brixton Hill, London, but was amended to Brixton Dispensary, Water Lane, Brixton, during the same year. His movements can be traced by searching through the Registers.

Promotional calendar for Antikamnia,1898 (Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society)

For example, in 1912, the address was given as c/o R. Freeman Bullen at Bow Library, London, and in 1922 as HM Prison, Brixton and, in 1939, he had an address at Tulse Hill, a neighbourhood adjacent to Brixton. In 1940, the year of his retirement, his address was Station House, Piddington, Northampton.

Bullen joined the prison service in 1912 at Dartmoor Prison, leaving to join the army in 1915. On demobilisation in 1918 he was appointed the first pharmacist to Brixton Prison (I was the fifth such appointment in 1965) and retired in 1940 after 25 years service.

In the 3 December 1938 issue of Chemist & Druggist, there is an article by Bullen entitled “A day in a prison pharmacy”. What a day!

Here he gave a fascinating account of his duties, which included the collection of warrants of new prisoners, testing urine for diabetes, making tooth powder consisting of chalk, myrrh, phenol and camphor, cutting out newspaper items about prisoners, accompanying the medical officers on their rounds, not only in the prison but to officers and their families, keeping records of officers “put off sick”, preparing the necessary medicines, typing reports required by the courts, preparing stock mixtures, looking after stocks of brandy and whisky, the fitting of trusses and spectacles, preparing microscope slides for the venereal disease clinic and the testing of samples.

Bullen concluded by quoting an unnamed writer of 1913, who stated: “If pharmacy is not given her just value in the prison service, then there is work ahead for those thus engaged to prove their better worth.”

By all accounts, he had some literary talent, having had some short stories published in a Christmas annual entitled ‘The holly and the ivy’. He was also a frequent contributor to British and Colonial Pharmacist, which ceased publication in 1940.

Promotional calendar for Antikamnia,1900 (Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society)

In 1923, Bullen became a founder member of the Guild of Public Pharmacists, holding the position of vice-president until 1928 and president from 1928-29.

He was also a founder member of the Association of Prison Pharmacists in 1934. This association was affiliated to the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, which looked after the interests of prison pharmacists.

The driving force behind this association was D. W. H. Roberts, MBE, who was a prison pharmacist from 1931 until his retirement in 1972. He served at Wormwood Scrubs Prison (twice), and succeeded Bullen at Brixton Prison in 1940, becoming the first head pharmacist of the Prison Service in 1967.

The duties carried out by Bullen seem incredible today and, even when I joined the prison service in 1965, I was responsible for the distribution of the green coloured tooth powder. Thankfully I was not required to make it, because by that time it was made under contract to an outside concern.

However, in my early days I was still responsible for keeping a record of the (hospital) officers’ sick leave. Perhaps Bullen was given such diverse duties because he was the only person, apart from the medical officers, who was capable of carrying them out.

It should be pointed out that, in his day, there was nothing like the heavy load of dispensing that was to come.

Further information can be gleaned from death notices in Chemist & Druggist and The Pharmaceutical Journal. In the latter, he is shown to be the holder of the British Empire Medal (PJ, 31 August 1957, p147). Bullen was the first prison pharmacist to be honoured by this award, the second being E. J. Camps, from Liverpool Prison, who received it in 1969 on his retirement after 25 years’ service.

Bullen is also described as a pharmaceutical chemist, though no trace can be found of his attaining the higher diploma. Further, he is described as a senior pharmacist. This was a rank and does not imply that there was more than one pharmacist. In the death notice in the Chemist & Druggist of 7 September, 1957, he is also referred to as a senior pharmacist.

In The Pharmaceutical Journal of 7 September, 1957, p184, there is a tribute to Bullen from J. B. Elgar, a pharmacist and also a founder member of the guild.

At the initial meeting to set up the prison pharmacists association, it was stated that consideration was given to the idea that an association could be formed to include “pharmacists from a larger sphere than that of the Hospital Officers Association”. It was decided that this could be done.

Bullen was a pioneer in pharmacy and the profession has much cause to be grateful to him and his ilk.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT My indebtedness to Briony Hudson, keeper of the museum collections for her searches of Registers and notices.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043749

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