Around forty-one years ago I started my first full-time job. Like many others I had had no clear idea what I wanted to do when I left school but I was aware of the changes that were starting to take place in the world of work. I’m not sure who or when, but someone suggested that I consider pharmacy as a career. There was no history of professions in the family, indeed no history even of higher education, so it would be quite a venture for the working-class lad from the council estate.
What little careers guidance there was at school proved useless in this field so I wrote a couple of speculative application letters to the major retail chemist chains. Boots replied with an information pack and the London Cooperative Chemists with an invitation to a job interview. This I attended at their Leyton head office and, as a result, I was offered a trainee position at their Fencepiece Road, Barkingside branch.
I accepted it without question and filled the Saturdays until I left school with a job at their Marks Gate, Chadwell Heath branch at £1 per day. This gave me a taste for what was to come. To begin, I was shown a heap of medicine bottles and vials that customers had returned for re-use, a form of recycling no longer practised today due to hygiene concerns and the fact that the vast majority of medicines are dispensed in self-contained courses rather than from bulk supplies.
I arrived by cycle with a face red raw from the wind and left with hands in the same state from near-constant immersion in water and strong detergent. To this day, my hands are super-sensitive to anything except the mildest cleansers. When I wasn’t washing containers I was sweeping floors, cleaning shelves or restocking the shop as trade dictated. How I longed to do some proper chemist’s work!
That took a long time coming even after I started at my full-time branch, at the princely salary of £4.7s.6d per week. For a month or more I did the same as I’d done as a Saturday boy, only for 5½ days per week. Eventually I was permitted to dispense prescriptions under the eagle-eyed supervision of the lady pharmacist who ruled the branch with a rod of iron. Not only did this involve learning about the various medicaments – there was also the matter of interpreting the scrawl of the doctors who had prescribed them. It was easy to misinterpret the names of similar pharmaceutical products so the work of even experienced dispensers was always checked by the pharmacist.
In time, I added making up stock bottles of commonly prescribed mixtures and custom-made ointments and creams to my skills. After a while I became proficient at dispensing and became very interested in drugs and their applications,
something one could not admit to nowadays without raising eyebrows, but that was in a more innocent age.
After two years working at various branches of the Co-Op I moved to a busy private pharmacy at Manor Park in London’s East End. Not only did I get a substantial salary increase (to £10.10s per week) but there was also the opportunity to earn more by doing overtime. That shop was one of the very few that stayed open late, until 10pm Monday to Saturday and from 10am to 2pm every Sunday and public holiday. It wasn’t unusual to dispense prescriptions from all over London and farther afield.
To say we could get busy was an understatement - we regularly dispensed over 100 prescriptions in the four-hour shift. During a flu epidemic, we once dispensed 239, one short of the magic one prescription per minute over the shift. This was achieved by the pharmacist, one other dispenser and myself, plus our counter assistant who managed to maintain order in the overcrowded shop.
As well as hard work, it was a lot of fun. There was a distinct brand of chemist’s shop humour, revolving around bodily functions and the gender-specific “unmentionable” products that are a chemist’s stock-in-trade. Any innocence one might have had on arrival was soon replaced with a finishing education!
My appetite had been whetted and I decided to try for qualification as a pharmacist. For that I’d first have to do some more study to obtain a place at a pharmacy school. Thus I took a year out for further education while working as many evening shifts as I could in order to supplement my grant.
I never did qualify as a pharmacist. Whilst studying, a friend in the business suggested that I considered the infant computer industry as an alternative career. Thus in 1966 I changed course completely and began the work that occupied me until my retirement last summer. My first computer job involved shift work, so I was able to fit in a few hours’ dispensing in the mornings of the week I worked evening shifts. This continued until I moved to a day job, at which time my six-year involvement in pharmacy ceased. During that time, to quote the old pharmacists’ double entendre, I always dispensed with accuracy!
© Brian Smith 2002
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