Chapter 1 : Pharmacy in Victoria and the origins of Sigma

In a History of Pharmacy in Victoria, written in 1994, author Gregory Haines succinctly summarised the pharmacy world which led to the founding of the Sigma enterprise in 1912. He said:

“Victoria’s leading pharmacists … refused to be constrained by the limits of the chemist shop, by commercial threats from the market, by the medical profession, or by various governments. These pharmacists saw to the lasting foundation of a pharmaceutical society, a pharmacy board, a pharmacy journal and, most remarkable of all, a college of pharmacy. Many ideas and all subsequent pharmacy institutions and organisations were born in the college and nurtured there.”

Melbourne College of Pharmacy, 1884 - Monash Univeristy
Melbourne College of Pharmacy, 1884 – Monash Univeristy


One of those ideas and organisations was the Sigma movement, which would evolve from among those entrepreneurial pharmacists who were part of the College of Pharmacy fraternity. They were the leaders of pharmacy in Victoria and by extension, in Australia. This situation had taken nearly 50 years to develop. From the very earliest years of the new Victorian settlement in the 1830s, until the 1870s the definition of a chemist seemed to be that if you owned a ‘chemist shop’, then you were one. It was a largely unregulated market; outside of Melbourne, it was ‘anything goes’. The leading chemists had emerged in the late 19th century determined to create a better operating environment for their craft.

The gold rushes which began in Victoria in the 1850s brought tremendous change to the colony, with a massive increase in population – from under 100,000 in 1850 to almost half a million six years later. The influx also brought with it a number of educated, professionally trained chemists. Gradually public health measures were passed by government and the medical practitioners began to regulate their own practice. The spread of the railway network assisted wholesalers to grow in size and influence. A Pharmaceutical Society of Victoria was formed in 1857, but chemists still competed strongly against one another regardless. Medicines could not be depended upon for their quality and price wars were endemic.

Despite these issues, general progress was managed all the same. A Victorian Chemists’ Assistants’ Association was formed in 1871 and a draft Pharmacy Bill was being considered, but the Pharmaceutical Society was in trouble, with membership and activities steadily declining. The passing of the Pharmacy and Poison Acts in 1876 breathed new life into the Society and into pharmacy in Victoria. The Acts protected the public, set professional standards for pharmacists and made clear the distinctions with the medical profession. In 1877 the first Pharmacy Board was established. One of its first tasks was to establish a register of pharmacists – as a result membership of the Society in turn saw a steady increase, to 198 by 1878, including four women.
The rapid growth in medical and chemistry science in the late 19th Century was becoming more evident every day during the Melbourne boom years. Many chemists had prospered as much by ‘hocus pocus and straight quackery’ as by real science based pharmacy. However, the Society was supporting the rapid changes in pharmaceutical knowledge and those chemists who were members gained immediately. In 1881, the Society established its College of Pharmacy and in 1884 the Society incorporated and changed its name to the Pharmaceutical Society of Australasia. An intercolonial pharmacy conference was organised for Melbourne in 1886. The great bank crashes in 1893 and the depression of the 1890s which followed the banks’ demise heralded the end of the boom years and placed great pressure on chemists everywhere at a critical point in the development of the profession in Victoria.

Following the revisions, in 1885, to the 1876 Pharmacy Act, open warfare broke out between chemists and the popular friendly societies, a war later exacerbated by the business closures and bankruptcies caused in the depression of the 1890s. The failure of the pharmacists to eliminate the competition of these friendly societies along with the growth of the sale of non-medicinal products from dispensaries also saw continued pressure on pharmacists to survive in the market. However, by the early 20th Century they had not only survived, but also prospered due to their insistence on high professional standards and licensing of master chemists, along with their institutional strength provided by the Society, the College and their Journal.

One organisation, of great importance to the future of Sigma, was the formation in 1883 of the South Suburban Chemists’ Association, for chemists south of the River Yarra. It survived the depression of the 1890s, encouraging price regulation among its members. In this regard, it was a supporter of the Proprietary Articles Trades Association or PATA, described in the History of Pharmacy in Victoria as ‘a cartel of manufacturers, distributors and retailers aimed at price maintenance’. However, the PATA mark-up of a uniform 25 percent concerned some chemists who thought it too high. Nonetheless, such cartels were a natural response to independents such as the friendly societies, cooperatives and larger retailers setting their own prices.

In 1904, there was a meeting of Metropolitan pharmacists with the object of putting up proprietary preparations under a common label. About 30 attended the meeting, held at Champion’s Hotel in Swanston Street, Melbourne. After much discussion as to how this revolutionary concept might work, a committee of seven was appointed to investigate further and report. Among the seven was Ernest Holloway Leete, later to be one of the founders of Sigma.

Despite best intentions, the initiative was a flop. A circular with a prospectus was sent to every pharmacist in Victoria inviting them to subscribe to the new organisation, under the name of ‘Bell’s’. The response was negligible – even some of the original 30 did not reply. A second circular had the same response. Members of the committee, before it was dissolved, each chipped in £2 to cover expenses. However, the idea was not dead. Leete kept it in his mind and finally, when the time was right, he brought it forward once again and in 1912 offered up the idea to the South Suburban Chemists’ Association. It was to be from this idea that Sigma would be born.