Who was the first British woman to qualify as a pharmacist?

FANNY DEACON 1838-1930

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) was founded in 1841 to protect the interests of chemists and druggists, to properly regulate their profession and to enhance their status and respectability.

In those days anyone could claim to be a chemist and druggist after just a period of apprenticeship in a pharmacy. There was no requirement for them to take an examination. Nor was a clear distinction made between chemists and druggists and apothecaries who were the physicians and general practitioners of the period. Both were able to prescribe medicine and drugs, provide medical advice and perform minor surgery.

Today, the majority of those working in pharmacy are women but in 1841 membership of the RPS was restricted to men.

However, circumstances contrived to cause that to change.

In the 1840s a sensational series of murders and accidental poisonings involving arsenic created huge public concern. The government’s response was to introduce, in 1851, the Arsenic Act. This placed the onus upon anyone selling arsenic to keep a signed register of those buying it, also details of the amount sold and the reason for its purchase. However, this Act did not specify who was solely allowed to sell arsenic to the public.

This remained the case until the Pharmacy Act of 1868 which extended the number of poisons that had to be recorded at sale and compelled all pharmacists who wished to sell poisons and dangerous drugs to be examined and registered by the RPS.

Unusually, for this time, the Pharmacy Act did not prevent women from entering the profession. That is why the first compulsory Pharmaceutical Society register compiled a year later, recorded the names of 223 practicing women pharmacists: about 2% of the total number.  These women probably qualified for inclusion in the register because they were already in practice having taken over their business from a deceased father or husband.

The passing of the 1868 Pharmacy Act enabled women to take the Pharmaceutical Society’s examinations and register as qualified pharmacists.

There were two examinations that could be taken: the minor and the major. The first woman to pass the Pharmaceutical Society’s minor examination and qualify for registration was Fanny Deacon (nee Potter).  She qualified on the 5th February 1869 and appears in the register of the pharmaceutical society as a chemist and druggist in 1870.

Fanny’s father, William Potter, was a pharmacist who had a chemist and druggist shop in Kibworth, a village in Leicestershire.

Once she was qualified, Fanny registered from the same address as her father until 1875.

After marriage to Abraham Deacon, a minister, she and her husband moved with her father to Fleckney, another village in Leicestershire, where they had a shop next to Abraham’s chapel.

Fanny’s son, Gus, combined pharmacy with watch making, and Fanny remained at Fleckney long after the deaths of both her father and her husband. She was still on the register of the RPS when she died in 1930 aged ninety two.