An unexpected side effect: changing face of the profession

As the practice of pharmacy struggled to establish itself on the battlefield, back home opportunities emerged from the ashes of the war for some.

Like so many other industries during World War I, women were there to step into the breach. A glance at the honours list around the pertinent dates of 1914 to 1918 is a stark reminder of the ways in which women were able to thrive and succeed during an otherwise dark and difficult time. In 1915, the Victorian College of Pharmacy Gold Medal was won by a woman for only the second time: Ethel E Drew. This was the first milestone on a path that has seen women become an increasing proportion of the profession. It was not until WWII that female students would again be the majority. Today the gender mix in the Monash pharmacy course hovers around 70% female and 30% male.

Pharmacy had already slowly started to become an attractive occupation for young women, and there were many qualified female dispensers. This was partly due to the fact that many pharmacies were family run, so if there was no son available the business would often be handed down to the daughter rather than be sold or passed on to someone else. A Victorian Women Pharmacists’ Association was established in 1905 and in 1911 it reported “Almost without exception all the principal hospitals in Victoria now employ women as head dispensers” but the advent of the war led to a surge in student numbers and women stepping into family businesses and spaces left vacant by those leaving for war.

After surveying a number of pharmacists as the war was drawing to a close (and it seems managing to offend many women in the process by questioning their “inequality of temper”) the Chemist and Druggist of Australasia wrote:

“We were soon told in black and white that three women pharmacists discussing our article thought that we had chosen a suitable time to discourage women in their efforts to qualify for any work in which they can replace men or to damp their ardour in war time they must inevitably go unrewarded once peace has been declared. We were also told in black and white that the women pharmacists showed some temper over it, too. Nearly every letter referred resentfully to the statement we quoted that women sometimes showed inequality of temper. We hope that what we now say will not ruffle anyone.”

The journal attempted to hedge its bets by opening with the rather tautologous line, “For the girl who is suited to it, pharmacy is a very suitable occupation.”

In the course of canvassing opinions under the header ‘Women in Pharmacy, What Women and Men Think’, the journal surveyed 103 registered female pharmacists. The letters they received are a wonderful record of voices of the women who were studying and working in the field during wartime.

Under the header “Should A Girl Take Up Pharmacy?”, one woman wrote:

“I would recommend a girl to take up pharmacy as a calling in preference to anything else I know of. The work is congenial, the social status is good, the pay is better than that of most positions open to women. For my own part I was always careful not to take a position at a salary less than would be offered to a man. If girls were bound not to accept smaller salaries than men, the latter would have nothing to fear on returning from the war that assistants might be judged on their merits, leaving sex entirely out of the question.”


“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.”

Another working pharmacist wrote:

“There is no bar whatsoever to a girl becoming a successful pharmacist providing she commences her career by regarding it as her possible life work, and not as a means of ‘doing time’ in pre-matrimonial years. It should be a matter of distinct personal choice. The work is interesting and absorbing, and in addition it gives a fair monetary return to its girl workers.”

Most men working in the profession who were also surveyed agreed that women were just as adept at pharmacy as men, and in a show of progressiveness still not matched by many industries today, in 1918 the Victorian association of chemists employed in hospitals and dispensaries voted unanimously in support of equal pay for both sexes.

Ethel herself became a dispenser at the Queen Victoria Hospital and while she went on to marry a prominent Victorian retail chemist, A. R Bailey, she “drew favoured work in the hospital to that in the shop”.1

1 (A history of pharmacy in Victoria, pg 151)