Pharmacy in India.
Read before the Alumni Association of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, January 18th.
LAHORE, INDIA, November 27, 1886.
The subject "Pharmacy in India" is probably one which has not been brought before you, and for this reason I am induced to address you, trusting the characteristics of Indian pharmacy will make up any lack of composition by the writer. In the first place there is no pharmacy law in the country, and any onecan engage in the drug business regardless of his knowledge of chemistry. Hence, there are all sorts and conditions of chemist shops from the strictly legitimate shops of Calcutta and Bombay to the native medical halls in the bazaars, where poisons of sorts are on freely sold as Epsom salts. In Calcutta and Bombay the drug stores are on a line with the pavement as at home, but in other cities and stations of India they, as well as all stores, are built in the centre of yards, or, as called here, compounds to which there is an entrance and exit gate. The buildings are all one story with very high ceilings, large airy rooms, the store portion to the front and residence part in the rear. Over the entrance to the store a portico is built on account of the great heat of the sun, which would be felt severely by some persons even in the short space of time occupied by leaving the carriage and entering the store. Around the portico are potted plants, rose bushes, etc., and the entrance is, as a rule, bordered with potted plants. Hence, we have no window display, and the part of an apprentice's life, the flies in the window, is unknown here. Outside of Calcutta and Bombay, there are no strictly chemist businesses; but this is an adjunct to a general store, and as a rule is the best paying branch of the business. The chemistry part of the business takes the lead in the firm's advertisements, as Root & Co., chemists; and general merchants, and this is carried out by merchants whose stock in trade consists of a few auction patent medicines.
The British Pharmacopeia is the standard, but many Indian medicines are prescribed, and there is an Indian Pharmacopoeia which is unofficial. Many American preparations are used and the United States Pharmacopeia is to be found in every drug store. American patent medicines have a very large sale, and among the non-secret preparations Parke, Davis & Co.'s Fluid Extracts and McKesson & Robbins' Capsuled Pills have become best known. The quantity of McKesson & Robbins' Quinine Capsules that are sold is marvellous. Of course this is a country of fevers and malaria, and the perfection which these capsules have reached have impressed themselves on the medical men, and the natives are among the most frequent buyers. To sell them in bottles of one hundred is of very frequent occurrence. The patent medicine trade is large, but it is much hampered by the natives who sell at prices that Europeans cannot touch. Most of the goods of the former are auction goods, such as have been on the shelf until the wrappers become unsightly and are then handed over to the auctioneer. Then the native bears the same relation to the European as the Chinaman to the American; he can live on such a small amount that the profit on one bottle of medicine would keep him in food several days.
Connected with all chemist shops (the term for drug stores) is a manufactory for a'rated waters, the sale of which is enormous. A'rated water (carbonic acid water), soda water (with a tinge of bicarbonate of soda), lemonade, gingerade, tonic water (with a trace of quinine), and potash water are those principally bottled. Soda water is kept in bottles of 14 ounces capacity, and the sweetened waters in 12 ounce bottles. The water in India is very bad and many persons never drink anything but a'rated waters; but what causes the greatest consumption of soda water in India is the "Peg." This is a drink of whisky or brandy mixed with a bottle of soda water, and ninety-nine one hundredths of the liquor is drank in this way. Whisky is never drank "neat;" but although it is well watered, I doubt if there is a place in the world where the consumption of liquors will average that drank by the European population in India.
The term European applies to all foreigners in India who are of white skin. The a'rated water trade is being much cut into by the regimental who are large consumers. They buy a machine, manufacture their own and sell them to customers at greatly reduced prices. A petition has gone up to the Viceroy from the tradespeople, protesting against the soldiers competing with them in this way. Natives do all the work, prepare the syrup, and bottle the waters.
A feature of the drug business is that no small quantities are sold as a general rule. Most things are put up in bottles and the customer must take a bottle or none. If he asks for an ounce of chlorate of potash lozenges, he is told they are only kept in bottles, one rupee each, a four ounce bottle containing about three ounces of lozenges for forty cents. Vaseline, lime water, ipecac wine, spirit of nitre, etc., are all kept in bottles, and it is very seldom any one inquires for half an ounce or one ounce, and sends a bottle for it. Many things that are sold several times daily in all shops at home, rarely find a sale here. Senna, salt, magnesia and paregoric are sold once a week probably,
The prescription trade is large and profitable, there being a fixed price which is adhered to by most Europeans. There are many native chemist shop, which advertise the compounding of prescriptions, but many who deal exclusively with them for other things, send their prescriptions to European chemists.
There are a great many native doctors who have a diploma from some Indian native university, who can speak and write English, and have considerable, practice. Then there are the apothecaries, who are employed by the government in every station to take charge of the station dispensary and practice among the government clerks, such service being given to them free, while the apothecary draws an income also from the tradespeople, many of whom employ him. The European doctors are all army surgeons who are appointed civil surgeons in the different European stations. Besides drawing his army pay he enjoys a large income from his practice. A civil surgeon serves three years in one station and is then transferred to another. From these different practitioners there comes a large prescription business and sale of surgical appliances, etc.
Few customers appear at the store and then only when it is necessary to select, or when buying fancy goods, etc. A greater part of the trade is done by chits (notes sent by servants), and nine-tenths of the business is credit. Such a country for credit does not exist in another place and there is not a firm that does not carry a large amount of bad debts on it books. People seldom carry money with them and credit is refused only to those who are known "bad hats."
Now, as to the preparation of prescriptions. In Bengal and the Punjab the eastern and northern portion of India, the European assistant copies the prescription in the book, and at the same time calls out the ingredients to a native, who is called a compounder. He has served a sort of an apprenticeship in some dispensary, then has some experience in a drug store and there develops into a compounder. He seldom speaks English, but, as a rule, can make out the names of the ingredients and quantities, but can seldom read directions. He places all his bottles on the counter and then prepares the prescription while the European gives him the quantities. Unless the prescription require some special manipulation, he manages to compound it all right; but otherwise it is necessary to stand by him and tell him what to do. They do everything, prepare plasters, suppositories, etc., make all the preparations for the shelves, but everything must be checked. After the prescription is compounded, he calls out the quantities and has his bottles in order as they appear in the prescription. Often he has gotten hold of the wrong bottle and the preparation is useless, and all it concerns is an ejaculation and it passes out of his mind the next minute. It would be impossible for Europeans to do the work, the heat is so great and working away at a batch of pills would cause a profuse perspiration in two minutes. There is a native for everything and on account of the caste institution of India one man will not do the work of another. There is one man whose special duty is washing bottles, etc., another acts as an apprentice to the compounder who shoves the hard work on him, such as working pill masses, pounding roots, etc., and so firm set are they in their feeling of respect for those above them they dare not rebel.
Bills are all collected by natives called chupprassees, and are sent out at the beginning of each month. There is a system of checking by which the bills can be traced daily to each chupprassee; and should any money be missing or not be turned in, and some customer declared he paid, the chupprassee to whom the bill was delivered on the day of payment can be traced at once. But there is little stealing this way and natives are trusted with large amounts in their possession.
But nine-tenths of them steal, though in small amounts, and while your man would not steal a hundred dollars from you he would not scruple to steal a two cent piece. It is necessary to keep all the show cases locked day and night, and when serving a customer, you are compelled to unlock a case before you can get at the goods. Quinine and expensive chemicals are also under lock and key. The natives in the government dispensaries stole so much quinine that, to protect itself, the government have all their quinine colored pink, which effectually prevents anyone from disposing of it. As for lying, they are professionals, from the compounder to the lowest menial, and they can hatch up lie in a twinkling. There is a man (Chowkedar), who sleeps on the verandah at night to receive any chits that may come and also to guard the place.
In the Bombay Presidency the European clerk has a still better time of it as Portugese compounders are mostly employed, and they write their own labels, copy the prescriptions and do not require checking. But what is most to be commended in the business in India are the hours. Here in Lahore we open at eight o'clock and close at six. One hour is allowed for breakfast, one for dinner or lunch, and a cup of tea is brought into the shop about four clock; close on Saturday afternoon at two, and never open at night or on Sunday. In Simla, in the Himalayas, where I served two years, in winter we opened at nine and closed at five in the afternoon.
It is a poor place to apprentice a white boy. From his earliest days all his work is done by natives, and when he comes into a shop he thinks he is being made a menial if called upon to do anything servants could do. So he gets no practical experience in the rudiments, learns the business in a superficial way and would not be fit, when three years in the business, to take the place of a six months' apprentice at home. But don't let any one who hears these lines come to India on a speculation. In the first place the climate is against you. Should you be on a Plains' station during the summer you must be under a Punkha—a large fan, which swings backward and forward above your head, creating a breeze all day and all night. One is over your head in the dispensary, another in the shop proper, one over your dining table, and one over your bed, and this last is the one which causes one to forget the commandments if anything in the world does. You go to sleep with the punkha coolie giving you a fine breeze. After an hour he falls asleep and you awake in a profuse perspiration and with a muttered ejaculation shy a boot at his head, which effectually wakens him up for another hour. And thus goes on the night and the poor punkha coolie in the morning is only too glad to get away and soothe his bruises.
It is difficult to get a situation. I came to India knowing nothing whatever of the country nor anybody in it. I found but three chemist shops in Calcutta employing Europeans, and this is the largest city in India. Then I received the awful information that every chemist brought his assistant (drug clerk) out from England on an agreement, passage paid out and back, and the clerk to stop with his employer three, four or five years as the case may be. In three weeks I was fortunate enough to secure a vacancy, but I might have been six months without even hearing of one. For a clerk to leave at the end of his agreement long notice must be given, allowing his employer ample time to bring out another man from England. Lastly your salary varies, a very distressing fact. The rupee the coin used in India—silver—fluctuates. When I came to India it was worth one shilling and eight pence—40 cents; then it went down to 1.6, then to less than 1.4 (32 cents), and now it is at one and six pence; it should be two shillings (50 cents) when at par, and I trust that when I leave the country it may be at a favorable rate of exchange to somewhat compensate me for the heat and fevers that I have endured since entering the country.
I trust these lines may have proved of interest to you, and that it way not be many days before I can be present at one of your social gatherings.
John A. Falck.
The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 59, 1887, was edited by John M. Maisch.