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Apothecaries were purveyors of medicinal substances in the time before the advent of modern pharmacy, when doctors principally used plants with medicinal actions, as well as mineral and animal substances on their patients. Medicines were made from all manner of plants, some of which grew locally and were very common and recognisable, while others were imported from overseas and appeared unusal. Apothecaries were trained in recognising and preparing these substances, which could involve grinding, pounding, boiling, disolving and even burning them to ash. Doctors either bought their medicines from apothecaries, or sent their patients to see them with an early form of prescription, making apothecaries a sort of prototypical pharmacist.

However, seeing a doctor was expensive in the past and many patients sought out medical advice directly from the apothecary, which was cheaper. Many apothecaries probably knew a lot about which products would be beneficial for sick people, such as the notorious Nicholas Culpeper, who believed all people should have access to affordable medicine. The College of Physicians often tried to prevent apothecaries from having the power to 'treat' patients directly, perhaps fearing they would lose their monopoly.

In 1617, apothecaries were granted a royal charter and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was established, which to this day continues to provide support and education for pharmacists and doctors. They were formally permitted to effectively practise medicine, which also made them forerunners to modern general practitioners. However, before modern pharmaceutical drugs began to be used predominately, the majority of their medicines were plant-based, and closely resemble the medicines still used by herbalists today. For these reasons, the apothecary could be viewed as the 'common ancestor' or doctors, pharmacists and herbalists.

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