Mosaic showing pharmacy symbols on the side wall of what was once Cherry's Chemist at the corner of The Halfway, Hersham, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. The houses along this stretch of road began to be converted into shops in about 1870 (see Hughes 25); there was a further phase of development in c.1900, when the nearby bakery got a new frontage. However, the green cross symbol shown in the mosaic was only introduced by the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in 1984 (see Anderson 119), so this is likely to be a later addition rather than an original sign. Cherry's Chemist has since moved several shops down, and the corner shop is a now a dry-cleaner's. Nevertheless, the mosaic panel has recently been restored.

The pharmaceutical symbols are given here in one handy group. We see, from the upper right clockwise:

  • a green cross indicating a pharmacy stockist (i.e. a chemist's shop), with the rod of Asclepius (Greek) or Aesculapius (Latin), the god of medicine, superimposed on it — the snake winding around it being associated with healing (see Friedlander 15-17), and the scales showing how the correct dosage is achieved, perhaps also suggesting the judgement of the chemist, and/or the restoration of balance to the patient's body

  • below that, a pestle and mortar for reducing medicinal substances to powder, and mixing them

  • in the middle, a large carboy — "from the Persian word 'quarabah' meaning large flagon, used for wine of rosewater": rows of these large globular bottles were traditionally seen on shelves in chemists' windows, where they once held differently coloured liquids for medicinal preparations, not just for decoration but also "for preparing pharmaceuticals using the heat of the sun" (Anderson 119)

  • a white cross with the sign of the prescription to be given, the letter "R" derived from "recipere," the Latin for "to take back" or "receive." This has a more general meaning, too, "as an invocation to Horus and Jupiter (Father of the Gods), whose help is sought in making the prescription effective" (Seth 48)

  • finally, in the top left square, the bowl of Hygiea (variously spelt), goddess of health, who was the daughter of Asclepius, again with the snake winding round it in reference to healing
  • Following the Pharmacy Act of 1852, strengthened by the Pharmacy and Poisons Act of 1868, chemists had to be legally registered to dispense medicine (see Anderson 119-20). There was still a good deal of regulatory work to be done, particularly with regard to the licensing and selling of poisons. It was important for people to recognise the symbols associated with a proper pharmacy in the days when there were uncertainties about their standards, and even more important for the symbols to be used appropriately to reassure the public.

    Related Material


    Anderson, Stuart. Making Medicine: A Brief History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals. London: Pharmaceutical Press, 2005.

    Friedlander, Walter J. The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO (Praeger), 1992.

    Hughes. Wendy. Walton-On-Tames (Images of England series). Stroud: Tempus, 2003.

    Lass, Abraham H., David Kiremidjian, and Ruth M. Goldstein. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Classical and Literary Allusion. Ware, Herts: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.

    "The Origins and Meanings of Pharmacy Symbols." Wellcome Collection. Web. 13 December 2019.

    Seth, S.D. "Prescription Writing, Suppliance and Self-Medication." In Textbook of Pharmacology, edited by S. D. Seth and Vimlesh Seth. 3rd ed. New Delhi: Elsevier, 2009 (Chapter 111). Preview at Google Books. Web. 13 December 2019.

    Created 13 December 2019