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The Decline of Professional Chemists

Fifty years ago in South Africa, and in England, chemists (pharmacists in the U S of A), ran their own small shops. They were open from 9 – 5. They were pretty much only allowed to sell medical-type goods.

The doctor who made a home visit to you wrote out a prescription for a cough mixture or eye drops that involved various ingredients that only a chemist was allowed to assemble. Many medicines were custom. The pharmacist was trained to assemble and dispense them. He (they were mostly heís) used distilled water and various chemicals he had in stock. He worked in the back of the chemist shop. He assembled them with pipettes and glass flasks and finally decanted them into a dark brown light-excluding bottle with a cork. He wrote out a label by hand and pasted it on, with instructions. And then a guy on a Vespa, if you were willing to wait, delivered it to your house.

Mirabile dictu, many of the chemists in Cape Town actually carried chemicals and photographics supplies too. I used to buy granulated zinc weighed out into little brown paper bags and dilute hydrochloric acid decanted into the same brown bottles, and then make hydrogen-filled balloons. I brought glass tubing and heated it and bent it. I bought sulphur powder. Somehow, the suburban chemist carried it all in little brown labeled drawers in a bureau in the back, or ordered what he didnít have from the stockist, Haynes Mathews, a magical name, downtown. I also bought sodium hypochlorite and developer and black bakelite tanks, though that was, I concede, already a drifting from the true job of a chemist.

My sister had a boyfriend from Johannesburg — I think his name was Lou — who was a chemist and ran his own small business. Being a chemist wasnít that far away from being a real doctor. She invited him over to a Friday night family dinner. He appalled my parents by having the honesty to tell them that sometimes when he was in a hurry he used tap water instead of distilled water.

Chemist shops needed chemists, both for their skills and their license, and you could make a good living by being a locum, a Latin word indicating an itinerant qualified chemist who came in to work for a daily fee in some chemist shop in place of the regular but temporarily absent chemist, in order to provide the licensed authority to make medicines and the skill. Sometimes, I suppose, the locum was hired by an entrepreneur chemist who wanted to grow jis business.

I thought of this yesterday when I went into Duane Reade to fill a prescription. I handed the prescription to a woman cashier who was (wo)manning the cash register and taking prescriptions. She passed it to a bunch of female pharmacists standing behind a shoulder high counter who, non-stop, were talking on the phone squeezed between ear and shoulder to either friends or doctors offices or insurance companies or, rarely, patients, while they simultaneously read prescriptions and counted little capsules or tablets out of giant vials out and poured them into little vials and labelled them and handed them back. They were so busy and so bored doing such dull assembly-line work. No decanting and no talking to customers. The cashier had a more human job than the chemist.

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