Saturday, 23 September 2017

Rhinoceros, rhinoceroses, rhinoceri*

Apothecaries' Hall is home to what must be London's largest rhinoceros collection! The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries doesn't have a menagerie, but it does have the rhino as its unlikely symbol. And not just any rhino, but Dürer's rhinoceros (famously inaccurate, with an extra horn on its back). 

Why this animal? It's thought to be because the horn was reputed to have medical properties (a persistent myth, contributing to the endangerment of the species today). There may even have been some association of rhinoceros horn with the magical powers of unicorn horn. 

The Apothecaries had been members of the Grocers' Company, since they were originally spice-sellers. However, by the sixteenth century, they had pharmaceutical skills and sought to establish their own livery company; they received their charter from James I in 1617. From 1704, apothecaries were permitted to prescribe as well as dispense medicine, and the Society has been responsible for examinations, licensing and regulation of the profession since 1815. Unlike many livery companies, it remains at the heart of its original trade, with medical professionals making up the vast majority of members. 

The Society played a key, if unintended, role in the history of women doctors. Victorian pioneer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was refused entry to medical school, but was tutored by the apothecary at the Middlesex Hospital, where she worked as a nurse. She was admitted to the Society of Apothecaries in 1865 and was thus licensed to practice medicine. (However, she had done so through a loophole in the Society's regulations - which were quickly amended to exclude women.) Unable to obtain a hospital position, she set up her own practice before going on to take her medical degree in Paris and founding the New Hospital for Women and Children and the London School of Medicine for Women. 

In 1632, the Company acquired its current livery hall site in Blackfriars. Not too many years later, it fell victim to the Great Fire of London, but was rebuilt and the second hall still stands today. 

It is arranged around a courtyard, which features a key tool of the trade: a pestle and mortar. 

A staircase (carpeted with rhinceroses, of course) leads to the court room and parlour. The latter has an impressive collection of apothecary jars, varying enormously in age, size, and shape. Most, though, are the traditional blue-and-white. 

The heart of the building is the Great Hall. And on Open House weekend, it was filled with information about the Society's continuing educational role, with diplomas ranging from medical history to conflict and catastrophe medicine, as well as lecture programmes. The society is very much active in the present, even as the rhinos remind us of its long past. 

* Spot the deliberate mistake! Rhinoceri is not a correct plural of rhinoceros, but rhinoceros is.

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