Many of the objects on display in this partial reconstruction of a chemist’s shop are from Keith’s the Chemist, a St Andrews dispensary formerly located at 73 South Street. These objects would have been commonplace in any pharmacy at the start of the twentieth century. Almost all medicines, pills and remedies were prepared on the premises by the chemist and his assistants, a practice ended by the 1950s when mass production was necessary to satisfy the needs of the new National Health Service.

Main title: A.W. Keith: chemist and collector

Archival photographs of Keith’s the Chemist reveal the owner’s keen interest in the history of his practice.


A.W. Keith arrived in St Andrews in 1923 to take up a post as chemist’s assistant to J. J. Kirk. When Kirk retired in 1934, he took over the long established and well-known business and ran it until his death in 1966. Like other retail chemists of the period, Keith stocked branded goods and other mass-produced pharmaceuticals, reducing his need for pill making machines and old-fashioned dispensary tools. While somewhat obsolete, Keith retained these relics in educational displays, not unlike simple museum exhibitions, for patrons and passers-by. Antique mortars, accompanied by labels with dates and countries of origin, lined the shop’s interior shelves with other antique bottles. And in the windows, a curated arrangement with the theme ‘Chemistry through the ages’ – utilising the iconic carboys (tall glass bottles which advertised the shop’s trade in previous eras of illiteracy), antique vessels and old dispensing tools – was interpreted with the aid of object histories, illustrations and maps.


It is thanks to Keith’s dedication to the preservation of his historic chemist shop collection that the Trust, through his successor T.M. McKechnie, was able to acquire such a comprehensive collection for the museum’s permanent display.


Main title: Healer, patriot and entertainer


Before arriving in St Andrews in 1923, Mr A. W. Keith was educated at Gordon’s College in Aberdeen. During World War I he joined the Highlander Infantry and in the post-war years became a commercial traveller, including some years in Calcutta dealing in chemist’s goods. In the Second World War Keith became a member of the Royal Observer Corps posted on the Kinkell Breas overlooking St Andrews Bay.


(Photo of Keith in costume)


“He was prominent as a general healer – the ailing body he sooth and healed with medicine and the mind with his sparkling wit and never-failing good humour.”


A.B. Paterson (1983), Tale O’ The Toon


Keith was an enthusiastic member of the British Legion and composed a humorous history of the Scottish Regiments which he read at monthly meetings. Together with his friend, Ex-Provost T. T. Fordyce, Keith continued to entertain the local community as a prominent member of the St Andrews Dramatic Society and with performances in sketches and local concerts.


Main title: From alchemy to chemistry in Scotland



Scotland’s contribution to medicine and chemistry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is widely known, such as the discovery of penicillin by the Scotsman Alexander Fleming in 1929. What is less well documented is the contribution many Scots, some with strong St Andrews connections, made to the early development of chemical and medical science.


The ‘Wizard of the North’

Alchemy, known as the ‘Divine Art’, was the forerunner to chemistry practised throughout Medieval Europe. One of the earliest champions was Michael Scott (ca. 1175 to 1232). Known as ‘The Wizard of the North’, Scott was court astrologer to the Emperor Frederick II of Sicily in the thirteenth century. Scott’s legend as a wizard – who accomplished such feats as splitting the Eildon Hills near Melrose and changing the course of the River Tweed – was largely due to Sir Walter Scott who embellished the alchemist’s story in the 1805 poem ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’:


“In these far climes, it was my lot

To meet the wondrous Michael Scott

A Wizard of such dreaded fame,

That when in Salamanca’s cave,

Him listed his magic wand to wave,

The bells would ring in Notre Dame!”


The Philosopher’s Stone

In the early sixteenth century, James IV founded Scotland’s first alchemical laboratory in Stirling Castle with the goal to discovering the elusive quinta essencia – the Philosopher’s Stone or Elixir of Life. The king’s head astrologer and alchemist was John Damian, an Italian most famous for his attempt to fly by leaping off the battlements at Stirling Castle wearing a winged contraption made of feathers.


The St Andrews Apothecary

One of Damian’s associates was a man called ‘Broun’, described as ‘a master potingair of Sanctandrois’ (St Andrews). The ‘potingair’ was an apothecary, the forerunner for the chemists of a later age. Broun is recorded as having supplied remedies for the royal stomach on more than one occasion.


The best-seller

During the seventeenth century, the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone became a popular pastime and Scottish nobles pursued it with particular enthusiasm. Alexander Seton was a well-born Scot who travelled the continent performing ‘transubstantiation’ – the changing of one substance into another – of simple metals into gold. As a result of these well-publicised ‘feats’ the Duke of Saxony, determined to discover the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, imprisoned and tortured the alchemist until fellow practitioner, Michael Sendivogius, rescued him. Seton’s writings on the subject, Novum Lumen Chymicum (New Light of Alchemie), became a ‘bestseller’ of its day and continued to remain popular into the eighteenth century.


Like father, like son

John Napier of Merchiston, the inventor of mathematical logarithms, pursued his early studies at the University of St Andrews in the early seventeenth century. His three main interests were mathematics, religion and alchemy. His son, Robert, developed an interest in the latter and produced a manuscript on the subject, The Revelation of the Mystery of the Golden Fleece.


The Al(Chemist)

William Davidson of Aberdeen, born in 1593, was possibly the first Scot to make a respectable living from the teaching of alchemy. He became physician to the King of France and first holder of the chair of chemistry at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. He published an early textbook of chemistry, part of which dealt with the use of chemistry in medicine. Davidson published several other works of medical interest and can claim to be called a chemist rather than an alchemist.


The end of Alchemy and the rise of Chemistry

The eighteenth century saw the mysticism of alchemy being largely abandoned in favour of the more sober practice of chemistry. A course of what would now be called pharmaceutical chemistry was given at Edinburgh under the guidance of the Incorporation of Surgeons and in 1713 the first professor of physics and chemistry was appointed at Edinburgh University.

Object labels:

Mortar and pestle


Possibly one of the oldest surviving tools from the history of chemistry is the mortar and pestle, a symbol that remains today associated with pharmacology. Traditionally the mortar and pestle was used to grind ingredients into a fine paste or powder. Mortars were made form different materials, including bell metal, brass, iron, glass, ivory and hardwoods. Metal mortars were problematic as they could react to the ingredients prepared in them. Josiah Wedgwood (1730- 1795) solved this problem with the development of biscuit porcelain in 1780. These became commonly used and are known as composition mortars.





The distinctive shape of the carboy, a functional vessel for storing large quantities of liquid used in making medicines, helped identify a business as a chemist shop in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Vitrine 1: Pill-making


Before mechanised mass tablet production, chemists produced pills by hand. Many medicinal powders were unpleasant to taste and so to solve this issue chemists would combine them with liquorice powder and liquid glucose to mould them into pills. The added ingredients formed a pliable mass that could be rolled and cut in a pill machine, and then rounded by hand before drying.

(Chemist shop)



Powder Envelope Maker

wood and brass



Powder, ground in a mortar, was the simplest form of medicine dispensed by chemists. Individual doses, carefully measured, were wrapped by hand in sheets of pre-cut paper. The final folds were made on a powder folder like this one to create a uniform length in order to fit snugly into the box in which the customer received them.


Once a pill had been formed and hardened it was varnished in a round-bottomed boxwood container. However, in the Victorian era, gold or silver was the preferred finish.


Pill silverer



Chemists gilded or silvered the pills by rotating them in this spherical boxwood rounder with gold leaf or silver and a little gum. Fees for this luxurious coating were added accordingly.


Vitrine 2: Drugs


Main title: Intro


Once considered wonder drugs, increasing abuse, accidental overdose and adverse side effects of cocaine, morphine and other opiates led to the introduction of the 1868 Pharmacy Act. Medicinal manufacturers were not previously obligated to disclose ingredients in their products and so the Act made it compulsory for all medicines containing these ingredient and other poisonous substances to be labelled ‘POISON’. Despite this new labelling, it was still possible to purchase some of today’s most notorious drugs as ingredients in over the counter medicines from an early-twentieth century chemist’s shop. It was only with the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act, in 1922, that many of these medicines were restricted or removed from sale completely.


Intro: Opium

(image of poppy)


Use of opium for medicinal purposes pre-dates recorded history. Derived from opium poppies it was the only effective treatment for pain for most of medical history. Its Latin botanical name, Papaver somniferum, means the ‘sleep-bringing poppy’ – a reference to the sedative properties of the opiate. These properties were already well understood by ancient civilisations and the poppy soon became an important item of trade. By the late eighteenth century the British East India Company controlled the prime Indian poppy-growing areas on the Ganges plain between Patna and Benares and dominated the Asian opium trade. Control over poppy production and trade eventually led to not one, but two, Opium Wars with China in the nineteenth century.


Opium remains today the source of many other pain-relieving drugs, including morphine and heroin. Morphine was first isolated from opium in 1805 by a German pharmacist, Wilhelm Sertürner (1783-1841). Heroine is a derivative of morphine, synthesized by Charles Romley Alder Wright (1844-1894) in 1874. Administered intravenously by injection, heroin is two to four times more potent than morphine. While widely abused as a result of illicit trade, morphine and heroin (under the generic name diamorphine) are still prescribed as Class A pain medication in the United Kingdom.


Opium Tablets


Chlorodyne (Laudanum)


Invented in the mid-nineteenth century by Dr. John Collis Browne (1819–1884), a doctor in the British Indian Army, Chlorodyne was marketed as a cure for coughs, colds, asthma, migraines and bronchitis, as well as for the treatment of cholera symptoms. The original Chlorodyne was a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), cannabis tincture (a liquid extract) and the anaesthetic chloroform.


Containing opium, cannabis and chloroform, the original Chlorodyne was a popular painkiller and sedative. Local chemists’ shops were quick to make their own cheaper generic versions for sale to their customers, including Boots who manufactured the bottle in this collection. Many of these knock-offs replaced laudanum with morphine hydrochloride, which increased early abuse of the drug.


While the original Chlorodyne is no longer in productions, it is still possible to buy Dr J. Collis Browne’s Mixture, a cure for coughs and upset stomachs, which contains morphine and peppermint oil.


Gee’s Linctus Pastille’s (opium tincture)


Tin of 10 hypodermic needles

In the 1850s the Scottish doctor Alexander Wood (1817- 1884) developed the first hypodermic syringe and injected his first patient with morphine in 1853. This invention made is possible to inject various opiates, which caused unpleasant gastric side effects when taken orally, directly into the body. Morphine in particular became more widely used as a result of the invention increasing the risk of dependency. Both Wood and his wife became addicted to the drug after testing it as a treatment for neuralgia.

Intro: Cocaine

(image of coca plant)


Suffering from gastric pain, nausea or vomiting? If you lived in the nineteenth century it’s likely you would have taken cocaine to relieve your symptoms. And as strange as it might appear today, the drug would have also been recommended as a cure for opium, morphine, and alcohol addiction.


Cocaine is an alkaloid derived from the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylon coca). Traditionally coca was used by South Americans to overcome tiredness, thirst and hunger, as well as to prevent altitude sickness. The alkaloid was first isolated in 1860 by the German scientist Albert Niemann. In medicine, cocaine was primarily used as a local anesthetic, able to numb the surface of the mucous membrane to which it was applied. When taken in the form of lozenges or pastilles, cocaine was used to alleviate the symptoms of the sore throats.


The side effects and potential for abuse are well known today and so the therapeutic use of cocaine is now very restricted. Cocaine is now only used as a local anesthetic in ear, nose and throat surgery.



Pill Cacoa Container


Hypodermic syringe for cocaine


Due to its stimulant properties, cocaine was promoted in the middle of the nineteenth century to those that required increased stamina to sustain long periods of physical endurance. It was therefore commonly utilised by climbers, sportsmen and the military.


Intro: Amphetamine

(image of ephedra)


During World War II, the military in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan used amphetamines to sustain alertness, increase endurance and uplift mood. Abuse of the psychoactive drug started to rise in the post-war years with the discovery that its intravenous injection produced a feeling on intense euphoria.


Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu from the chemical compound ephedrine found in Chinese Ma-Huang plant (Ephedra sinica). However it was only in the 1930s that its central nervous system stimulant properties were discovered. Amphetamine was then prescribed medicinally for everything from alcohol hangover, narcolepsy, depression, weight reduction, hyperactivity in children, and vomiting associated with pregnancy.


Box of Benzedrine cylinders


The first pharmaceutical amphetamine was Benzedrine, a brand of inhalers used to enlarge nasal and bronchial passages. However early users of the Benzedrine inhaler discovered it had a euphoric side effect, resulting in it being one of the earliest synthetic stimulants to be widely used for recreational purposes. Even though this drug was intended for inhalation, recreational use involved opening the inhaler to retrieve the Benzedrine-covered paper strip inside, and swallowing it.

Vitrine 3: Poisons


In order to prevent accidental poisoning by the illiterate in the early nineteenth century, bottles containing poison were made to be identifiable by their colour. Blue was the original colour used for poison bottles. Green became more common in the mid-nineteenth century followed by amber (brown). Ridges, fluting and unusual shapes – including the multi-sided hexagonal – were also used for poison identification.


Wall display: Hair & Beauty


As the industrial twentieth century progressed, chemists stopped hand-making pill-making in favour of medicines mass-produced in factories. These retail chemists also began selling a wide range of products in addition to pharmaceutical items. By the 1950s beauty products would have been available at most chemist’s shops.

Solis electric hair dryer, c.1930


Short wavy hair, emulating gentle ripples on water, was the look coveted by 1930s women. The gentle undulations were supposedly introduced to soften the harsh bobs popular with flappers in the previous decade.


Wave hair clamp, c. 1940


Hair clips


Curling irons

There were several wave-making techniques, including the finger wave and the Marcel (Marcelle) wave – named after Francois Marcel, a nineteenth-century French hairdresser who first invented the process in 1872. The first simply used wet hair, fingers, clips and clamps. The Marcel wave, also known as ‘Marcelling’, created a similar look but made use of hot curling irons. The introduction of heat resulted in a longer-lasting hairstyle.