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First World War

Serving on the front and back at home

Pharmacists were among the men and women who served in the First World War, through enlisting in the army, serving on the home front, or maintaining pharmaceutical services.

17th Field Ambulance, showing horse-drawn horses

Source: The RAMC Muniment Collection in the care of the Wellcome Library, Wellcome Images

17th Field Ambulance, showing horse-drawn horses

On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The following day the first full-page advertisement ran in British newspapers appealing for men to volunteer: ‘Your King and country need you’. It was the first of many such adverts to appear over the subsequent years.

The then Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was tasked with recruiting a large army to fight the Germans. On 5 September a picture of him pointing at the viewer appeared on the front cover of a popular magazine, London Opinion, over the order ‘Join your country’s army’.

Large numbers of chemists and druggists — and others engaged in the medicines trade in different ways — responded, signing up for service with the army.

On 19 September 1914, the Chemist & Druggist (C&D) published its first roll of honour, encompassing “all those connected with pharmacy and the drug trade who are now serving with the British army”. It listed several hundred names and appeared weekly thereafter. In all, the list included thousands of names. But it wasn’t long before the names of those killed in action began to appear, some weeks with as many as a dozen names listed.

Military dispensers

Pharmacists enlisting usually expected to do so as soldiers in the army. Some, however, hoped to make use of their pharmaceutical knowledge. On 8 August 1914, The Pharmaceutical Journal published an article under the heading ‘Pharmacists as military dispensers’. It announced a special army order, which laid down the conditions of service for pharmacists who wanted to serve as military dispensers during the war. “Men enlisted under this army order must not be more than forty years old, and enlistments will be for one year, or if the war lasts longer, for the duration,” it said.

Pharmacists who wanted to join the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), which is responsible for maintaining the health of servicemen and women, were advised to speak with their nearest recruiting officer, and must first enlist as ordinary privates, the lowest military rank, with no guarantee that they would serve in the RAMC. “They should however intimate in what capacity they desire to serve,” read the notice. “We are informed that the services of 150 dispensers will be required, and that not more than 50 of these will be expected to serve with any expeditionary force that may be sent out of the country.” 

The requirement to enlist as ordinary privates generated a heated debate in the letters columns of The Pharmaceutical Journal. Henry Morgan, a pharmacist from Kimbolton, hoped that “pharmacists will not enlist unconditionally, for if they are willing to work under the RAMC corporal during times of war, they must not be surprised at RAMC men insisting on being registered as full-blown chemists without examination during times of peace.” More patriotic voices prevailed: James Grier, a pharmacist from Manchester, wrote that “the present is not the time for arguments, but for service.”

In the army

Pharmacists could not progress to become commissioned officers unless they joined the forces as combatants. Their rank and status in the armed forces remained a contentious issue throughout the war. The argument even spread to the national newspapers. In the Daily Chronicle on 3 April 1915, a letter from an RAMC lieutenant was published urging that “warrant rank at least should be granted to men holding the Pharmaceutical Society’s certificate”.

Pharmacists’ rank and status in the armed forces remained a contentious issue throughout the war

At the time, pharmacist William Glyn Jones was Liberal MP for Stepney. During the war, Jones was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministers of Munitions and Reconstruction. There were thus close links between the society and the government, and Glyn Jones was an advocate for the employment of pharmacists in the army. The society lobbied the government to establish an Army Pharmaceutical Corps with its own commissioned ranks. All such proposals, however, were resisted by the army. Only minor concessions were obtained; in 1916 the title ‘sergeant dispenser’ was replaced by ‘pharmacist’ in official communications.

Those pharmacists who did enlist were involved in a wide variety of duties during the war, many of whom shared their experience with readers of the two main journals catering to pharmacists of the time. On 12 September 1914, The Pharmaceutical Journal published: ‘A chemist’s assistant’s experience at the Battle of Mons’. Immediately after the war, the C&D’s readers were invited to contribute their stories to a series of articles called ‘Experiences of the Great War. In all, 36 contributions were published. The first, ‘Pharmacy in the near east’, appeared on 23 November 1918; the last ‘With the Sanitary Corps’ on 17 April 1920.  


As soon as war was declared, men who were too old to join the army, including many pharmacists, wanted a means of serving their country. Unofficial volunteer defence associations spontaneously formed around the country[1].

On 18 July 1915, a meeting was called by a group of local pharmacists, the London Pharmaceutical Association, to discuss the possibility of forming a corps made up entirely of pharmacists. Most of those present signed the roll, becoming the inaugural members of the Pharmacists Volunteer Training Corps (PVTC). The aim of the new corps was to provide a company “trained in sanitation, ambulance work, chemistry and analysis”[2].

Along with other volunteer corps, such as the Volunteer Motor Corps and the City of London Volunteer Training Corps, the pharmacists became exasperated with the government’s refusal to recognise them as a military unit. In an attempt to prove their worth, the PVTC held an exhibition of their skills and sanitary appliances at Brockwell Park in London on Sunday 15 October 1916. The hope was that the war office would give the corps official recognition as the Pharmacist Sanitary Company for London.

Despite the exhibition, the war office decided that recognition could not be given to any non-combatant unit. They were given the choice of disbanding or converting to combatant training. Eventually, the PVTC became ‘D’ company of the United Arts Rifles, which formed the 1st County of London Volunteer Regiment. The pharmacist volunteers stayed as infantry soldiers until the end of the war.

Women and pharmacy

The need for ever more men to fight on the front meant that those serving in non-combatant roles were often removed from them. In April 1916, the C&D reported that male dispensers in all the military hospitals were to be dismissed and their places taken by women. “There are not of course any women pharmacists to be had for this work, but it is held in the army that the Apothecaries Hall assistant’s qualification is good enough for dispensers in military hospitals”.

Call up First World War recruitment poster

Source: Alfred Leete / WikiCommons

Many pharmacists joined up and served

In 1908 the number of registered women pharmacists was just 160, about 1% of the total. Of these, only two-thirds practised pharmacy and, of these, most worked in hospitals and institutions, and around one-fifth in retail pharmacy[3]. The Association of Women Pharmacists was formed in 1905, representing the interests of women pharmacists. 

By 1917, men were in short supply across the UK and drug companies had little choice but to employ more women. Boots — whose retail and manufacturing business had been growing since it was founded in the mid-19th century — employed 5,484 men in 1914 but only 4,863 in 1917; over the same period the number of women almost doubled from 3,859 in 1914 to 7,476 in 1917 (ref. 4). Beechams, which had a factory in St Helens, Lancashire, was obliged to engage women for the first time. The welfare officer at the factory selected 17 girls, “those who had clean finger nails, and wherever possible, piano-playing experience, since agile fingers on the keyboard were expected to be equally agile on the packing line”[5].

Boom time

A few days after the declaration of war, the C&D offered a motto for the British drug trade; “Keep cool, be economical with everything you buy and sell, and help the country by not yielding to the temptation of profiting yourself in the time of the nation’s trial”.

Running a business in wartime was undoubtedly challenging, but it could have been a lot worse. Reviewing progress after one year, an editorial in the C&D noted that pharmacists have much to be thankful for. “The business of pharmacy has not been disorganised to the same extent as many other businesses and, taking the country as a whole, pharmacists are not less prosperous than they were before the war began. For this we ought to be grateful”.

For many, community pharmacies business was brisk during the war. Boots’s response to the war was to produce a range of goods for the “men at the front”. These included water sterilisers, anti-fly cream, vermin powder and a packet case of compressed medicines (including quinine and phosphorus tablets). Boots retail sales, which approached £3m in 1914, exceeded £5m in 1918 (ref. 4). The number of Boots branches increased from 560 in 1914 to 590 in 1918.

Opportunities for industry

The British-based fine chemicals industry received a considerable boost in 1914 with the need to replace chemicals previously imported from Europe. On the eve of the war, German firms such as Bayer, Hoechst and Cassella dominated the pharmaceutical industry. With the outbreak of war, Britain closed down subsidiaries of German companies, suspended German trademarks and patents, and ceased to import German products, and alternative supplies were needed immediately.

The UK government urged British companies to produce replacements for drugs such as Salvarsan, a treatment for syphilis discovered by Ehrlich in Germany in 1909 (ref.6). In 1916 venereal disease affected about one in five fighting men, so an effective treatment was urgently needed. A licence was issued to Burroughs Wellcome to make and sell Salvarsan, and another to Poulenc in Paris to make and sell it through their British agents, May and Baker[7]

Burroughs Wellcome’s success in producing Salvarsan substitutes led to the manufacture of other synthetic substitutes including aspirin, benzamine, emetine, flavine and phenacetin[8]. With the war extending into areas endemic in malaria, such as eastern Europe, supplies of quinine became crucial; during 1916 alone over 21 tons (nearly 65 million doses) were produced. The Official War Record noted that “the number of tablets of compressed drugs issued during the war amounted to 1,080 million, in addition to a very large number of tubes of hypodermic and ophthalmic tablets”[9].  

Boots expanded its fine chemical manufacturing activities, with aspirin, phenacetin and atropine produced in large quantities for government, home and overseas buyers. In 1917, it produced alternatives to Bayer’s sedative Adalin and Casella’s antiseptic Flavine. Bayer manufactured Burnol acriflavine antiseptic cream under contract with the wartime British Fire Prevention Committee, and launched its own Chloramine-T disinfectant and Halazone water-sterilising tablets for supply to the military[4].

Smaller drug companies also flourished during the war. In 1916, £6,000 of drugs were supplied under government contracts by manufacturer AH Cox, and in 1917 they compressed drugs valued at £35,000 for the government at a ‘nominal charge’. The turnover of the company more than doubled between 1915 and 1918, from £49,371 to £100,135 (ref. 10).

Supply challenges 

Pharmacists were kept informed about shortages and possible substitutes through The Pharmaceutical Journal’s weekly ‘War notes and news’, and the C&D published helpful formulas and methods of preparation for a wide range of products. Restrictions were placed on glycerin from April 1916 and departmental orders — legally enforceable instructions from government departments — were applied to everything from sugar, bismuth and shellac to cocoa, oils and fats.

The government appointed an Advisory Committee on Drug Supply, which included members of the Pharmaceutical Society and civil servants. It monitored the situation and suggested ways of alleviating shortages, usually by finding new sources of supply or suggesting possible substitutes.  Prices of many items, including salicylates and potassium salts, rose sharply owing to initial speculation. A six-fold increase in the price of bromides during the war was reported[11].  

The Pharmaceutical Society issued a ‘War emergency formulary’ as an aid to conserving essential drugs, and the society’s Pharmaceutical Press published a reference book ‘War emergency notes for pharmacists’, recognising the need for “easily accessible, recent and authoritative information on all subjects affecting the practice of pharmacy under departmental orders”. A second edition was published in 1918.  

A heavy toll

Pharmacy suffered its share of casualties of the war. The first report in the C&D of a person killed in action was published on 24 October 1914. William Sherrington, of the South Lancashire Regiment, was previously employed by Lewis and Burrows of Holborn, London.

Many of those whose names appeared on the pharmaceutical roll of honour distinguished themselves with acts of heroism and courage

Casualties were reported separately in the deaths column of the C&D. Some weeks as many as a dozen names appeared and there were seldom no notices. From 15 January 1916, entries were listed under three separate headings: killed in action, died on active service (from effects of gas-poisoning or shell-shock) and died of wounds. One of the last to be listed was Captain Bruce Macdonald Brander, who died in France on 30 November 1918. He had been assistant editor of the C&D. Pharmacists continued to be reported as killed on active service for several months after the Armistice; the last name appeared on 29 March 1919.

Many of those whose names appeared on the pharmaceutical roll of honour distinguished themselves with acts of heroism and courage. By 1918, reports were appearing regularly of those receiving honours and awards, including the Military Medal and the Distinguished Service Order. Others received the Croix de Guerre of either France or Belgium. On 12 January 1918, The Pharmaceutical Journal reported that Major JHB Wigginton had been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. He had previously been manager of the drug and perfumery department of Harrods department store in London.

At the end of the war, the pharmacy community, like the rest of the country, was simply relieved it was all over. The Pharmaceutical Journal reflected the mood in its editorial of 16 November 1918; it read: “The end of the war: sursum corda (hearts lifted).”

Innovation during the First World War - the gas respirator

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.20065770

Readers' comments (1)

  • I recall, when Secretary of the Essex Local Pharmaceutical Committee I had sight of the Minutes of the Committee dating back to it’s inception in 1911. At one stage during WWI the Committee recorded it’s good wishes to one of their number, Mr Percy Jordan on his joining up, and wished him a safe reurn home. He did, and continued as a pharmacist in Grays for many years.

    Miall James

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Supplementary images

  • 17th Field Ambulance, showing horse-drawn horses
  • Call up First World War recruitment poster
  • Innovation during the First World War - the gas respirator

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