A profession of polymaths: The 19th century

Pharmacy as a profession has always had a strong entrepreneurial streak. The men who founded the most influential institutions in Victorian pharmacy, including the Victorian College of Pharmacy, showed ingenious, enterprising and polymathic tendencies in spades.

Early Victorian pharmacists such as Joseph Bosisto and John Kruse were involved in a broad range of activities, including research, export,  manufacturing and, of course, education. In Victoria, the connection between industry and education has been strong from the very beginning, precisely because the interests of early figures in pharmacy and pharmaceutical manufacturing were wide-ranging.

The activities of these men extended well beyond their professional and business prospects and their influence extends into the present day. Many were involved in philanthropy and politics. Their influence continues to colour daily life, especially in Melbourne. If you stop at the National Gallery of Victoria, to gaze at Giambattista Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra, you can thank Alfred Felton of the pioneering wholesale pharmacy firm Felton and Grimwade. That painting, and other significant works, were purchased from his bequest. Bosisto was once mayor of Richmond, and you can stroll Bosisto Street in that suburb today. Browse the aisles of your local chemist and you’ll see Bosisto’s Eucalyptus Oil and Kruse’s Fluid Magnesia.

Pharmacy in a tent, Goldfields (1875)

Going for gold

The population of Victoria quadrupled within a decade once gold was discovered in the 1850s. Even before the surge in population, hygiene and living standards were already horrendous. They soon became dire in the gold fields, too. There was high demand for medicines and treatments, with so much illness, disease and injury. People who couldn’t afford doctors fees often went to pharmacists instead.

Early Victoria was a loose and unregulated environment – ripe for trained pharmacists as well as quacks and dubious healers of all sorts. Until 1876, when regulations came into effect, any person who claimed to be a pharmacist was a pharmacist. In this environment, pharmacists found many opportunities and challenges.

From the 1840s onwards, new drugs and poisons were arriving to Australia shores but Victorian pharmacy was a blank canvas, lacking both legal and educational framework.

– Professor Bill Charman

Most of the people who founded the Victorian College of Pharmacy were Englishmen who had arrived in Melbourne during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Some came with hopes of finding gold, but many who had been trained in pharmacy already in England found they could make a more lasting or stable income by reverting to their original trade.

Early ingenuity

The distance from Europe, and the distances between populations in Victoria, made it difficult for pharmacists to order medicines and ingredients. It was hard sometimes to meet demand with supply. Almost all medical supplies, including drugs, were imported from England and it typically took around six months between placing an order and receiving the goods by ship. Consequently, there were a lot of cheap and poor quality drugs in circulation. Products and ingredients often expired or deteriorated on the ship.

Portraits of Joseph Bosisto, Major General Harold William Grimwade and Alfred Felton
L-R: Joseph Bosisto, Major General Harold William Grimwade, Alfred Felton

Victorian chemists had to improvise. Some substituted ingredients with supplies they had to hand. Others were more scrupulous, more resourceful and more adventurous. Joseph Bosisto discovered what Aboriginal people had known for thousands of years, that eucalyptus plants had all sorts of miraculous medicinal properties. He set up the first commercial eucalyptus oil distillery on the banks of the Dandenong Creek near Dandenong in the early 1850s. He soon set up other distilleries at Emerald, Menzies Creek and Macclesfield.

When the wholesaler Felton Grimwade started distributing Bosisto’s Eucalyptus Oil in the 1860s, eucalyptus oil was the only distinctively Australian substance listed in the British Pharmacopeia. It was one of Australia’s first exports.

In the 1860s, pharmacists in Victoria began to cultivate drug-yielding plants, including peppermint, lavender and opium. Pharmacists advertised their products in local newspapers in regional towns and set up mail order businesses. When train lines were developed, wholesale businesses, including Felton and Grimwade, boomed.

Sowing seeds

There was a strong spirit of bullish commercialism among the early pharmacists. In fact, the issue that first animated pharmacists to come together in a professional capacity was a threat to their profits. In 1857, a Dr Tierney, who was a medico-politician, put forward a bill to the Legislative Council “to regulate the safe-keeping and sale of arsenic and other poisons and their administration”.

Pharmacists organised to oppose the bill, which they saw as an unwelcome incursion from the medical profession on the way they ran their businesses, and especially a threat to the very profitable activity of selling opiates to relieve pain for teething babies. At a meeting in 1857, attended by Bosisto and Cuthbert Blackett (who was for many years the president of the Pharmacy Board, and later a lecturer and examiner at the college), they unanimously condemned the measures as “absurd and obnoxious in the extreme”.

In subsequent meetings of the group, the Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria was gradually formed, and the group began to articulate visions for the profession, and for their society, that extended beyond blatant self-interest. The men began to talk about the desire to elevate the standing of the profession, to improve their own knowledge and understanding of their field and to educate and train apprentices.

Pioneer Victorian chemists and druggists began to visualise pharmacy practices akin to Great Britain – it was their determination for the profession to flourish that laid the foundations for the future.

It wasn’t until 1876, with the passing of the Pharmacy and Poison Acts that the profession became more regulated. (This was largely thanks to Bosisto, elected to the Legislative Assembly, who steered the bill through the legislative process.) The Act sought to protect the public, outline some professional standards for pharmacists and define the difference between pharmacists and doctors. In 1877 the first Pharmacy Board was established. The board established a register of pharmacists.

John Kruse Pharmacy, Russell Street (1860)

One of a kind

After many stops and starts, the Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria finally established the Victorian College of Pharmacy in 1881. It was a private college financed by private fees and it was one of the first schools of pharmacy in the English-speaking world.

John Kruse, a German-born pharmacist and founding member of the society, was the central figure who pushed forward with plans for the college. Once the idea for the college was approved, he didn’t wait to find a suitable premises. Instead, the enterprising Kruse started teaching classes from his home in Fitzroy. Later, the school moved to the old County Court building on Swanston Street.

Even in the earliest days, there were strong links between the college and industry.

Apart from being a dedicated teacher, Kruse had many manufacturing interests including his well-known fluid magnesia. He also manufactured mineral waters, dynamite and insecticides. For a time, he had chemical laboratories in Flinders Street and, at various stages in his career, owned his own pharmacies, too. He established a bottling plant on the Bellarine Peninsula in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, the entrepreneur Alfred Felton of Felton and Grimwade, “wholesale druggist and manufacturing chemists”, was an early donor to the college. Pharmacy students took excursions to the Felton, Grimwade and Co’s acid works. There were strong connections with government and research, too. In the early years, Botany lecturer Daniel McAlpine was internationally recognised for his work on fungus diseases and the development of rust-resistant crops. Ferdinand von Mueller, the famous Victorian Government botanist, was a close friend of Bosisto and had strong ties to the school.

Lecture Hall, College of Pharmacy, Swanston Street (1930)
Lecture Hall, College of Pharmacy, Swanston Street (1930)
Apprentice pharmacists
Apprentice pharmacists

School site

In 1884, classes began at the repurposed County Court building. In the beginning, the lecture rooms were still in the court configuration, with docks and a raised judge’s bench. Again the ingenious pharmaceutical spirit was evident. At one stage, Kruse had students preparing ferrum reductum by passing hydrogen over the ferric oxide in an old gun barrel.

The college was ambitious from the start and held its students to high standards. Soon college lecturers were teaching courses to medical and dentistry students as well as pharmacy apprentices. The college awarded medals for top performing students and its examinations must have been extremely strenuous. Janette Bomford’s Victorian College of Pharmacy: 125 years of history is full of stories of low exam pass rates in the first 20 years of the college. People travelled from other colonies to sit the prestigious Victorian College of Pharmacy (VCP) exams and, pre-federation, the VCP rebuffed several attempts from New South Wales and elsewhere to standardise qualifications, asserting that the Victorian standard was superior.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria, the Pharmacy Board of Victoria and the Victorian College of Pharmacy were all located on the same premises on Swanston Street. This is certainly another factor in the strong, established connections between college students, alumni and industry.

“The college was the memory and the energy of Victorian pharmacy,” Geoffrey Haines writes in A History of Pharmacy in Victoria. “[It was] the source and explanation of its strength and community.” It flourished during the 1890s, despite a recession. In the early years of the 20th century it upgraded its facilities and started accepting women students. (Jane Wollen was the first female graduate in 1897. In 1905, the Women Pharmacists Association was formed, with Jane Wollen as president.) The college was an institution that, like its founders and the profession it served, had proved able to adapt with new and uncertain circumstances.

Women in pharmacy

As the war was drawing to a close the journal Chemist and Druggist of Australasia surveyed 103 registered women pharmacists. Under the header “Should A Girl Take Up Pharmacy?” one woman wrote:

If a girl has a desire to become a chemist I shall do all in my power to help her, because the duties are agreeable and interesting, and above all you have the delightful feeling of being independent.