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Early 20th Century Pharmacy

The photographs and Prescription Book have been kindly provided by Mr. Don Burge, a retired pharmacist, and Terry Omond OAM, curator of the Calvary Hospital museum.

The preparation and dispensing of drugs dates back to prehistoric times when man first noted the physiological effects of roots and leaves of plants. Some animal products, such as elk horns, leeches, and earthworms were also used. In later cultures these rudimentary practices became more formal, and were practiced by priests, doctors, monks, and early chemists. These medicines were primitive, sometimes obnoxious, and occasionally harmful. Their dosages were arbitrary, and their effectiveness varied.

Modern pharmaceutical practice separated from that of medicine in the 19th century. In Britain, the Medical Act of 1858 charged the General Medical Council with the "production of a book containing the list of medicines and compounds, and the manner of preparing them together with the true weights and measures by which they are to be mixed and prepared". The British Pharmacopoeia thus became the official reference book and superseded other previous manuals.

In Adelaide, one of the earliest pharmacies was established by Francis Hardy Faulding who opened his shop at No. 5 Rundle Street in May of 1845. The business flourished, and in December 1861 a partnership with Luther Scammell was formed. The firm named F. H. Faulding & Co. supplied basic drugs and ingredients to many Adelaide pharmacies. These compounds had such exotic names as Aqua Menthae Piperitae, Extractum Belladonnae, Sirupus Codeini, and Solutio Iodi Spirituosa. The pharmacists mixed their own medicines using such ingredients as late as 1940. The subsequent mechanisation and advances in chemistry have changed the role of pharmacists, who now sell the packaged products of various drug manufacturing firms, and formal dispensing is rare.

A container for mixture preparation. Macerated leaves and solvent were shaken in the container, the solution was decanted via the lower end tap.

A tincture press. The pressure plate was raised by turning the handle. Leaves or tubers and the solvent were then added, the pressure plate was then screwed down, and the expressed mixture was later decanted.

Tincture press.
Tincture press.

Moulds used in the creation of suppositories. The active ingredient was suspended in cocoa butter or glycerine, which melt at body temperature. The adult mould (right) has a larger diameter than the paediatric.

  • Paediatric suppository mould.
    Paediatric suppository mould.
  • Adult suppository mould.
    Adult suppository mould.

A pestle and mortar, commonly used to macerate or pulverise medicinal compounds before dissolving or tablet formation.

Mortar and pestle.
A pestle and mortar.

An example of two prescriptions. These scripts were dispensed in 1940 in the Burge pharmacy in Edwardstown. The volumes are expressed in ounces, and the weights in grains.

Example of 2 prescriptions.

Two views of a pill maker. The lower part of the machine has 20 grooves and the upper component fits snugly on the top and can slide "to & fro". The tablet mixture, which contains 20 doses of the drug, suspending agent and filler, is placed on the plate. The smooth side of the upper plate is then used to roll the mixture into a cylinder. The drug is then placed onto the grooved section. The upper plate is then inverted, and slotted into the guide channels in the long sides. It is then run over the drug cylinder, cutting it into equal sized pills, which are then collected in the depression at the bottom (left hand side of the left picture).
Any irregular edges are then smoothed using the wooden disc (right picture, lower right corner).


The following items were photographed with the kind permission of Jeff Rischbieth, executive of "Chemplus", and member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia. He also provided much of the background information. Some additional information about the drugs has been obtained from "Martindale" (25th. Edition of Extra Pharmacopoeia, 1958). The large jars are hand painted. The labels on the smaller ones are painted on thin glass plates and glued to their containers.

Precipitated sulphur B.P, usually mixed with calcium sulphate. As a powder it has an irritant effect on the bowel. It was commonly used as a cream, lotion or ointment for its antiseptic and anti-parasitic properties.

Precipated sulphur B.P.
Precipitated sulphur B.P

Colocynth B.P.C., a dried form of citrullus colocynthis, also known as bitter apple. The dried pulp of the fruit was separated from the seeds. It had an irritant effect on the intestine, and had a strong purgative action.

Colocynth B.P.C.
Colocynth B.P.C.

Six containers with labels on glass plates indicating their contents. The glue on the extreme left container has failed, and the label is resting against the container. Two of the containers contain tincture of digitalis. "p. ulmi" is a powder obtained from the slippery elm, and was used as a mucilage to thicken many preparations. Tincture rhei is a rhubarb preparation with aperient properties. Calcium hydroxide was often mixed with phosphates. As a white powder it had a bitter taste and was used as an antacid or astringent. Eucalyptus oil was often combined with menthol and used as a liniment or for inhalation.

Six containers.
Six glass containers.

  • A Mt Gambier chemist lithograph ad.
    A lithograph advertising a product of a Mount Gambier chemist (1900).
  • A sketch of the blue lake.
    A sketch of the blue lake.
Drug weights.
A set of weights in their container, used for weighing drug components.
A pessary mould.
Mould for preparation of pessaries.
A cork press.
An apparatus used to compress a cork prior to insertion into a bottle.

An unusual item in a pharmacy collection, a set of of paediatric sigmoidoscopes. It belonged to a relative of Jeff Richbieth, who was a surgeon at the Adelaide Children's Hospital.

Paediatric sigmoidoscope.
A set of of paediatric sigmoidoscopes.