Australia grows up: From federation to post-WWII

Australia grew up in the 20th century, gaining self-confidence and a newfound sense of independence after federation and through two harrowing war efforts.

The newly federated Australia saw that it would have to start fending more for itself, as a sovereign nation and as an economy. The growth of pharmaceutical wholesaling and manufacturing, especially in Victoria, is an important part of that story of growing independence.

The first half of the 20th century saw huge changes and expansion in Australian pharmaceutical supply and trade. Small local concerns expanded into powerful umbrella entities that spanned the continent. Australian-made products reached markets as far afield as Argentina and Nigeria. The efforts and energies of some ingenious pharmacists and businesspeople, including some notable college alumni, meant Australia could not only serve its own people with a steady and reliable supply of excellent medicines and other products, but could also create jobs through its enhanced manufacturing might.

The Great War

All Australian families and institutions were deeply impacted by World War I and the Victorian College of Pharmacy was no exception.

Alan Couve, Eric Bisset, Gordon Jewkes, Malcolm Jones and Frank Cahir
L-R: Alan Couve, Eric Bisset, Gordon Jewkes, Malcolm Jones and Frank Cahir. These five students of the College died in, or as a direct result of, World War I

Two hundred people from the school served in the war and 13 men died. Administrators and students had to adapt to drastically changing circumstances. The war disrupted the schedule of teaching and classes with many students attending training camps or leaving the country altogether. By 1917, the war had also changed the college’s gender balance. Twenty-three women and 20 men sat the intermediate examination in 1917.

The consequences of the Great War were far-reaching and unpredictable, and the Australian pharmacy profession wasn’t immune, with everything from the contours of the role to the demographic makeup of the profession being affected.

– Professor Bill Charman

The Aspro Story

The war ushered in an increasing concern – within the college, within the whole pharmacy profession, and at the highest levels of government – with Australia’s perilous dependence on overseas manufacturers, especially in Germany, for heavy chemicals and synthetic drugs.

VCP administrators decided that students needed more technical training (as distinct from academic trading), to better understand the manufacturing side of pharmaceuticals. They adjusted the syllabus accordingly. Meanwhile a Melbourne pharmacist and VCP graduate, George Nicholas, tried his hand at manufacturing a popular household drug previously imported from Germany, in one of the most famous stories of innovation in Australian pharmaceutical history.

Prior to the First World War, Aspirin (acetyl salicylic acid) was imported from Germany, where it was made by the giant Bayer company. But Bayer stopped supplying to enemy states during the war. The Australia Government announced that patents held by German companies would be suspended and granted to any Australian manufacturer who could meet the required standards of purity.

Nicholas decided to give it a crack using kitchen utensils and other improvised apparatus. Progress was slow and apparently foul-smelling in Nicholas’s iron-roofed pharmacy; Nicholas had problems with purification. But eventually, with the help of another chemist, Harry Woolf Shmith, Nicholas was able to create a pure and presentable product by June 1915 that met the standards of the British Pharmacopoeia. The purity test was overseen by government analysts and by then attorney general Billy Hughes, who pronounced the product “purer than German”.

George Nicholas teamed up with his brother, Alfred, and they ran their aspirin business together. There were credit problems, public relations problems and supply problems in the early years. In 1917, there was a smear campaign against the Nicholas brothers by an MP who started a damaging rumour that the brothers making Australian aspirin were a front for German business interests. This prompted the brothers to change the name from the original German and register their own brand: Aspro.

Nicholas Aspro Factory and Offices and Nicholas Building, Swanston Street
Main image: Nicholas Aspro Factory and Offices. Inset: Nicholas Building, Swanston Street

Demand for Aspro rose after World War I, in part because of the world-wide Spanish flu pandemic and in part because of the firm’s aggressive marketing strategies. George Davies, a visionary marketing man, joined the team in 1917 and introduced free trial gift-packs of Aspro along with newspaper ad campaigns that made some comically bold claims about the product: “An Aspro tablet now and then/Builds up and soothes the greatest men,” read one ad.

There were claims that Aspro could treat rheumatism, sciatica, neuritis and insomnia, too. Whether or not the public believed these assertions is moot, but Davies certainly helped the Nicholas brothers to convince Australians that Aspro was an essential, reliable and effective household product.

The Nicholas brothers invested in manufacturing technology to speed up production to meet increased demand. The firm negotiated exclusive rights to the Sanitape packaging press. Sanitape was agricultural machinery originally invented in the US for processing seeds, but one shrewd member of the Nicholas team, Robert Rowson, realised on a trip to the US that this same technology could benefit pharmaceutical manufacturers, too. With Sanitape, tablets could be wrapped quickly and hygienically in airtight compartments.

Nicholas Proprietary Limited set up a factory premises in South Melbourne and that was the beginning of a booming international business. By the end of the 1960s, it was a business that spanned five continents, employed nearly 4,000 people and operated 20 modern factories, produced many other products besides Aspro including cosmetics and veterinary products.

Cossar Family

It is difficult to imagine Victorian pharmacy, or the college, without the contribution of the Cossars. In 1919, David Cossar bought the Henry Francis pharmacy on Bourke Street. Established in 1849, it was one of Melbourne’s first-ever pharmacies. David Cossar served on the Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria for 36 years and during World War I held the senior position of Assistant Director, General Medical Services (Pharmaceutical) within the Australian Army. During the war, he undertook a special mission overseas, examining medical supply methods in places of war.

Norman and Brian Cossar, his son and grandson, both graduates of the college, have been influential and generous figures in Victorian pharmacy, too. Through the generations, the Cossars expanded and adapted the family businesses, most famously opening outlets in Myer stores in several states. In the 1980s, Henry Francis Chemists became a franchise, offering the wider array of services that have become common in retail pharmacies today – from ear-piercing and photographic services to passport photos.

Family Matters

Other college alumni prospered in business and industry in the early 20th century, including members of some of Victorian pharmacy’s oldest families.

David Cossar, who bought the first Henry Francis Bourke Street pharmacy in 1919, oversaw an impressive expansion of one of Victoria’s longest-running pharmacies. With his son Norman, who graduated from the college in 1930, Cossar established branches in Myer stores and across borders. By the 1960s, the company also offered a range of branded products, including vitamin lines. By 1972, there were 15 Henry Francis branches in prime
Myer locations.

Henry Francis & Co Pharmacy (1853) and Chemist
L-R: Henry Francis & Co Pharmacy (1853) and Henry Francis & Co Chemist, Collins Street

The year 1930 also saw the amalgamation of seven pharmaceutical businesses from across the continent into what became the umbrella wholesaling and manufacturing powerhouse, Drug Houses of Australia. The Victorian component of Drug Houses of Australia was the wholesale firm Felton and Grimwade. The name Felton and Grimwade was already a name of some renown in the Melbourne business world – not just as one of Melbourne’s oldest pharmacy wholesalers but also as a glass manufacturer. In the late 1900s, the firm had established Melbourne Glass Bottle Works Company in South Melbourne, which later became Australian Glass Manufacturers Ltd, to circumvent problems they’d encountered importing drugs in glass packaging from England. They were also the distributors of Bosisto’s Eucalyptus Oil. Alfred Felton had been an early donor to VCP and students visited their factories on excursions.

Felton and Grimwade amalgamated with interstate businesses, including the Bickford family business in South Australia and the Elliott Brothers in New South Wales. The first board meeting was held at the registered offices at 342 Flinders Lane and the first chairman of Drug Houses of Australia was Edward Norton Grimwade, the son of founding partner Frederick Grimwade, and an outstanding graduate of the VCP. (He won the Gold Medal award in 1887.)

Drug Houses of Australia expanded as a pharmaceutical maker and distributor until the late 1960s. The company acquired smaller dental and veterinary businesses and formed affiliated export and import companies overseas. The company played a key role in the early careers of some notable college alumni, including Peter Cook, who went on to become CEO of Biota Holdings and more. At its peak, Drug Houses of Australia is estimated to have employed about 50,000 people, with branches in major cities and regional centres (including Toowoomba, Mt Gambier and Tamworth) and factory and warehouse sites in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Cairns, Launceston, Perth and more. It was a serious economic force, and a boon for Australians, who enjoyed a more stable and accessible supply of safe drugs than ever before.

The Sigma movement

Founded in 1912 by two college alumni, Sigma Company Ltd was another major force in pharmaceutical wholesaling and manufacturing. The company’s founders were Edwin Thomas Church (who won the gold medal in 1884) and Edwin Holloway Leete.

Sigma began as the kind of business we might today call a “disrupter”, since its innovative business model aimed to change the market context. (In fact, so novel was the model at the time that for years the company’s business operations were known as The Sigma movement.) Sigma started out as a cooperative of 38 pharmacists, bulk-buying and packing proprietary lines direct to chemists using a subscription model. A subscription circular asked the pharmacists to contribute £20 each and in return receive £40 of goods. At a later date, subscribers would become shareholders.

The company then moved into wholesaling the products of other manufacturers. In the beginning, much of the product development and manufacturing happened in Leete’s Malvern pharmacy but quickly Sigma expanded, introducing more product lines, acquiring other companies and larger premises for manufacturing.

Cossar Hall (1960)
Cossar Hall (1960)

Like Nicholas Ltd and Aspro, Sigma aspired to household name status. In the 1930s and 1940s the Sigma name and Sigma brands were advertised regularly on local radio stations. The brand sponsored popular shows on 3UZ and 3DB and heavily advertised their products.

The company was able to weather, indeed prosper, through the Depression and two world wars. World War II, in particular, saw the company gaining some lucrative defence contracts. By the 1950s, Sigma was the second biggest wholesale distributor to Australian chemists and its penicillin proprietaries far outsold any other make throughout the Commonwealth. And by the mid-1960s Sigma employed more than 1,000 people, having expanded beyond pharmaceutical manufacturing and wholesaling into photo processing and printing and animal health preparations and having developed export trades to markets in Asia and the Middle East. The original company-cooperative structure still informs the basis of the Sigma Healthcare structure today.

Close connection

These names and businesses maintained strong connections with the Victorian College of Pharmacy over the decades.

In fact, in 1958 George Nicholas and Geoffrey Grimwade (brother of Edward and chairman of Drug Houses of Australia for a period) chaired a major appeal committee for the college before it moved to the Parkville site.

Sigma Co Ltd donated £15,000 pounds for the VCP’s Sigma Museum as part of that appeal. David Cossar personally donated £25,000 and Cossar Hall was named in honour of the generosity of the Cossar family.


In 2010, the faculty’s Dr Russell Tait coinvented PolyActiva drug-delivery technology and became the company’s CEO.

PolyActiva’s platform technology is used to deliver drugs to specific sites in the body with control over the rate of drug delivery for up to 12 months. The company’s research facilities are based within Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Parkville and has developed technologies with a number of applications including for the treatment of glaucoma.