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Legacy of Empire: Pharmacy, medicines & slavery in the British West Indies, 1650-1914

In the late 19th century medical and pharmaceutical authorities in Britain took a series of actions that together represented attempts to standardise the use of medicines and the practice of pharmacy throughout the British Empire. By 1914, the General Medical Council had declared that the British Pharmacopoeia was ‘suitable for the whole Empire’; and the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain had published arrangements for the reciprocal recognition of colonial pharmacy qualifications.

A British model of pharmacy had emerged. But when we ask how ‘British’ pharmacy was in 1914, we find very different situations in the 70 colonies. The regulation of medicines and the development of pharmacy education and practice depended heavily on local circumstances.  In this seminar I explore the use of medicines and the role of pharmacy in the British West Indies during and after the age of slavery. I examine the origins of English involvement in the region, the development of sugar plantations and slavery, and those providing medical care on plantations. Slavery presented lucrative opportunities to those engaged in the supply of medicines, involving the export of large quantities of emetics, purgatives and other drugs. Much trade took place through networks such as Quakers. Whilst English druggists set up shop at the end of slavery, most struggled to make a living.

When Jamaica became a Crown Colony in 1865 British pharmacy legislation was enacted, but had little impact on the local population. I consider the extent to which pharmacy was ‘British’ by 1914, and conclude that the legacy of colonialism for pharmacy was that development was delayed for over half a century, until after independence.  


About the speaker

Stuart Anderson is emeritus professor in pharmacy history at the Centre for History in Public Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine


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LSHTM Centre for History in Public Health


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