The Scruples of a Chemist

This article appeared in Pharmacy History Australia, July 1998 issue though it was written about 2 years earlier.

To those Pharmacists who were in practice before the 1960’s, Apothecaries Weights were old friends. With their arcane and ancient symbols, and designs in relief they were so much more attractive than the metric Weights we use today.

As an apprentice in the 1940’s, indentured to a Master who laboriously taught me the vagaries of Pharmaceutical mathematics, I wrestled with the huge complications of a system which used side by side an Apothecaries Ounce of 480 grains and the Avoirdupois Ounce of 437.5 grains.

I practised writing the different symbols – the drachm (ʒ) which looked like a figure three and the ounce () which looked like a figure three with an extra hook on top and the scruple symbol () which looked like a back to front Euro symbol.

Not to mention the Latin abbreviations ‘ss’ or ‘fs’ for half, and the still used ‘tds’ (to be taken three times a day), ‘qqh’ (every four hours), etc, plus being expected to know that the original Latin was ter diem sumendum, quaque quartis horis, and so on.

When my Master thought I had progressed enough I was allowed to write prescriptions into that sacred tome, the Prescription Book, where only the finest copperplate handwriting was allowed and where each new day was heralded by a magnificent heading complete with the flourishes of an expert penman – and in Latin! Dies Lunae (Monday), Dies Martis (Tuesday), Dies Mercurii (Wednesday), etc. It was only after many months that I was judged expert enough to write these!

And horror of horrors! – if a mistake were made, bleach it out with a sharpened matchstick dipped in Milton!

But….. to return to the Scruples of a Chemist.

The origins of the symbols go back over 2000 years and the weights were used by most of the Western world for much of this time. It was not until the introduction of the Metric System during the French Revolution that there was any real competition.

I had been collecting these weights for the past thirty years originally in a rather desultory fashion, and more because I was a locum chemist at about the time they had fallen into disuse and were being thrown out. It was not until I started to write about them that I found how little was known about them – especially by me!

This started a lot of reading and research and correspondence with Howard Green the Curator of the Avery Historical Museum in the United Kingdom and through him to the Centre for the study of Apothecaries Weights in Brussels.

I learned a great deal of the early history of Apothecaries Weights dating back about 2000 years, but of the weights in my own collection which date back less than 200 years, very little accurate information at all.


Even the weights originating from W & T Avery Ltd of Birmingham who was the most important manufacturer in the British Empire from the early 19th Century are difficult to date.

Avery introduced coin shaped weights in 1847 and lozenge shaped weights in 1850 and both types were still listed in Avery’s Catalogue of 1894.

It is difficult to date many of the Avery Weights but there are some guidelines:

1879 The term ‘Standard’ was added to their weights, though it is not certain when it was dropped.
1842-1883 Weights carried a diamond shaped registration mark.
1847-1911 Weights were marked ‘W & T Avery’ with ‘W.T.A’ on smaller weights
1911 Weights were marked ‘W & T Avery Ld’
About 1930’s Weights were marked ‘Avery’ – there is some doubt about this dating.

Another manufacturer whose output was quite prolific is now known only as ‘JLB’ – the initials appearing on their weights. These weights seem to have been supplied with medicine kits for domestic use.

Another set of weights in common use in the 1940’s and later and which probably date from the 1930’s is illustrated. Its maker was unknown but I was lucky enough to pick up a complete boxed set in an Antique Market in England in 1995 and the maker’s name was on the box – H.M.Stanley Ltd of Burgess Hill, Sussex – see illustration of #1285.

The grain weights were not generally so interesting being more like the milligram weights in current use though usually made of sheet brass with the value stamped on. However, as a young Chemist, I remember seeing a part set in which values were in the shape of the numeral, i.e., the five grain weight was a figure 5 cut out of aluminium sheet.

As far back as 1858, Apothecaries Weights were abolished in the United Kingdom by the Medical Act of that year, but many Doctors continued to write their scripts in grains in order not to use the illegal Apothecaries Symbols. Again in 1860 the medical Council tried again to introduce the metric System but again with almost no success.

Thus the Metric System was by-passed for almost another century and it was not until the mid 1960’s that the Apothecaries Weights were finally laid to rest.

Pondera Medicinalia by D. Vangroenweghe & T. Geldorf
Apothecaries Weights – An Outline Catalogue by Norman Biggs
Weights & Measures by J.T.Graham, Shire Album No.44
The Pill Rollers by Lillian & Charles Richardson
1894 Catalogue W & T Avery Ltd, Birmingham