Women pharmacists demand the vote

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By | The Researcher’s View

On Ada Lovelace Day, pharmacy historian Briony Hudson discovers the pioneering role of women pharmacists in the women’s suffrage movement.

In April 1913 Bernard Gill submitted an article for publication to the Pharmaceutical Journal that arrived in a charred envelope. The following parcel posted in the letter box had been filled with phosphorus by suffragettes.

In 2015, audiences can see Helena Bonham Carter as pharmacist Edith Ellyn posting just such an explosive parcel in the film Suffragette. Her character is at the centre of violent protests for women’s votes.


It is very plausible that the suffragette should be a pharmacist. In June 1911 the Chemist and Druggist trade journal carried photographs of women pharmacists marching for The Vote. It reported: “On Saturday, June 17, over 40,000 women marshalled on the Victoria Embankment, London, whence at 5.30pm they marched by Northumberland Avenue towards Piccadilly, and from there to the Albert Hall, where a mass meeting was held. It was a magnificent demonstration of the organising abilities of women and of the universality of their desire to get the Parliamentary vote. We give two photographs of the small section composed of women pharmacists…Miss Elsie Hooper, B.Sc., was in the Science Section, and several other women pharmacists did the two-and-a-half hours’ march.”

Portrait of Elsie Hooper

Elsie Hooper

Elsie Hooper (1879 –1969) passed the Pharmaceutical Society’s exams and scooped two of its research scholarships, before gaining a degree in botany and chemistry from Birkbeck College. She worked on the first British Pharmaceutical Codex (1907), and on Secret Remedies (British Medical Association, 1909). Having set up a pharmacy course at Portsmouth Municipal College, she became the proprietor of the Gordon Hall School of Pharmacy for Women, her alma mater, and bought two pharmacies in Hampstead.

Elsie Hooper was also a key player in the Association of Women Pharmacists (AWP) serving as its first Joint Secretary. The AWP held its first public meeting 110 years ago on 17 October 1905. The Association was established to discuss questions relating to women’s employment, to establish a locum register and a register of all qualified women, and for the “furtherance of social intercourse”.


The AWP invited Louise Creighton to speak at its inaugural meeting. Mrs Creighton (1850-1936) , wife of the Bishop of London, was a well-known writer, Church campaigner and advocate of women’s rights. Perhaps surprisingly, Mrs Creighton had worked hard to establish support against female suffrage. But by 1906, she publicly announced a change of position, stating that because women were already substantially involved in party politics, they should be given full responsibility through having a vote.

Women pharmacists had already had to campaign to get their voices heard – within the Pharmaceutical Society. The first AWP President was Isabella Clarke-Keer (1843-1926), one of the first two women to be elected members of the Pharmaceutical Society in 1879. It had taken ten years to establish equal status following the Pharmacy Act of 1868.

For physical and other reasons they are not fitted for employment…where long hours are kept.

Alice Vickery (1844-1929) was the first woman to qualify by examination after the Act. She also trained as a midwife and as a doctor, initially in France. Vickery became a seasoned campaigner: in the Malthusian League, the Eugenics Education Society, and against the Contagious Diseases Acts. She joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, then the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and finally the Women’s Freedom League, a breakaway group that opposed the WSPU’s vandalism.

The impact of the First World War provided opportunities for women to fulfil their potential, if only temporarily. As Dr David Hodges, President of the British Pharmaceutical Conference in 1916 put it “Present conditions have given women an opportunity of which they are evidently availing themselves to the full.” But Dr Hodges retained a Victorian attitude to women’s suitability for pharmacy: “For physical and other reasons they [women] are not fitted for employment…where long hours are kept.” Even leading female pharmacists such as Margaret Buchanan, first Vice-President of the AWP, proposed that women were only able to work nine-tenths of the hours that men were expected to fulfil or risked a “break down”.


Although many women did return to their domestic roles at the end of the war, there was a step-change in the number of female pharmacists and female pharmacy students. The number and proportion of women working as pharmacists grew through the 20th century to today’s position where pharmacy is a predominantly female profession. There have been more women than men on the Register since 2001, and their role is firmly established.

It took until 1928 for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act to allow women and men the same voting rights. Alice Vickery lived just long enough to see the milestone. Elsie Hooper was able to cast her vote into her 80s.

For more about the history of women in pharmacy,  take a look at Celebrating Women in Pharmacy, an online exhibition by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum.


The full historical archive of the Chemist & Druggist journal has been digitised by the Wellcome Library and is is freely available online.

Briony Hudson

Briony Hudson is a pharmacy historian and Immediate Past President of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy.

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