What Is a Pharmacopoeia?

A pharmacopoeia (also spelled pharmacopeia) is a published list of medicines and other health care products. Modern pharmacopoeias list products that are authorized by the government for use. The term pharmacopoeia was first used in 1561 and came into general use early in the 17th century.

Lists of recipes for making medicines from plant, animal, and mineral ingredients have existed since ancient times and were used by apothecaries—an apothecary is a chemist who makes drugs. In England grocers also made and sold medicines, but in 1606 James I (James VI of Scotland) issued a charter establishing the Society of Apothecaries of London. This society was linked to the Guild of Grocers, but in 1617 a further charter established the Apothecary Guild, recognizing apothecaries as craftspersons independent of and quite separate from grocers.

The charter made it illegal for anyone other than a member of the Apothecary Guild to prepare or sell medicines. In 1618 the College of Physicians published Pharmacopoeiae Londonensis (London pharmacopoeia), which was a list of the preparations authorized for use by the guild. The recipes contained up to 70 ingredients; a medicine based on a single ingredient was known as a simple. Many countries now issue their own pharmacopoeia.

In addition, the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, publishes The International Pharmacopoeia and the Council of Europe publishes The European Pharmacopoeia on behalf of 36 European nations plus the European Union.