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Healthy curiosity: deciphering pharmacy registers

Diving into Traces edition 13, contributor Peter Hobbins explores the deciphering of pharmacy registers.

There are stories in these old registers. Stories about suffering and healing. Stories about families and communities. Stories about changing neighbourhoods and our rising expectations for long and robust lives.

Yet, the books themselves sit forlornly on shelves in local museums. They look impressively historical, too valuable to discard. Except when they find their way into second-hand bookstores or antique shops, where customers cherry-pick the most appealing volumes as antiquarian ornaments. I own several myself.

But pharmacy registers are more than mere decorations. Dating back into the nineteenth century, they are full of hidden details to enrich local and family history research. The trick is not to be overwhelmed by their seemingly indecipherable scribbles. Let’s focus instead on what can be revealed to bring their stories to life.

Prescription books were maintained by chemists, druggists and pharmacists to keep a record of the medicines they were dispensing to customers. They are tall and narrow, usually with a large letter inked along the spine. Kept in order by date, successive volumes ran from A to Z, then the series moved on to AA to AZ, and so forth.

Depending on how busy the pharmacy was, each volume typically spans one to two years, capturing perhaps 6000 prescriptions. Every medicine dispensed was numbered sequentially, running consecutively from volume A onwards or starting afresh at the beginning of each new book. Each entry notes the patient’s surname, sometimes also listing their first name or even their address. Because they served the whole community, pharmacy records can help work out who lived where, and with whom, across a wide district.

Perhaps the most valuable section of a prescription book is the index at the front. Patients are listed by surname, with numbers indicating the pages on which their scripts are tabled. At the most basic level, the more often a person visited the pharmacy, the more unhealthy they were likely to be. Be careful, though – the same surname may appear more than once on the same page. The patient named on the script may not have been the person who collected it from the pharmacy.

To continue reading, pick up a copy of Traces edition 13 at your local newsagency, or subscribe to edition 14.

Image courtesy of iStock: 490883644

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