Dispensing Legacies -
Individuals Who Shaped Newfoundland Pharmacy
Many thanks goes to our 2019 Canada Summer Jobs employee Rebecca Howie for her research and curation of the original museum exhibit.
This exhibit was on display in the museum from 2019 until the end of 2022. We are excited to bring it online and to expand the exhibit by including even more individuals who helped shape Newfoundland pharmacy.
May 6th, 1811(?) - April 1st, 1880
Mr. Thomas McMurdo was the man who first introduced pharmacy as a professional practice to Newfoundland. He was born in Closeburn, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. He was educated as a pharmacist in Scotland and moved to Newfoundland between the years 1823 and 1831. When he arrived, he managed the London Medical and Chemical Establishment on Water Street. McMurdo bought out the Establishment in 1831, and opened Newfoundland’s first pharmacy, which was named “Newfoundland Apothecaries’ Hall.” It is worth noting that when the Newfoundland Pharmaceutical Association established the James J. O’Mara Pharmacy Museum, they named the building “Apothecary Hall” to honor McMurdo’s first drugstore.
Unfortunately, the Great Fire of St. John’s in 1846 destroyed McMurdo’s drugstore. He relocated to 210 Water Street where he built his second drugstore, Thomas McMurdo Co., Chemists. This business was successful and eventually expanded to making and wholesaling patent medicines.
McMurdo trained most Newfoundland pharmacists in the 1800s, his pharmacy was considered to be the first pharmacy school. With no university, apprenticeship was the only way of becoming a pharmacist. Notably, McMurdo trained Alexander M. Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell, the man who invented the telephone.
Thomas McMurdo was married, his wife’s name was Gordon Cattenagh (Reid) McMurdo, she was also born in Scotland. He and his wife had five daughters.
Thomas McMurdo's personal Hymn book with his signature on the inside cover. From the Museum's collection.
Glass bottle from McMurdo & Co. From the Museum's collection.
Prescription containers featuring various McMurdo & Co. labels. From the Museum's collection.
Thomas McMurdo McNeil
May 26th, 1879 - February 24th, 1918
Mr. McNeil was born in 1879, in St. John’s. His father, John McNeil was the son-in-law of Thomas McMurdo. Before doing his apprenticeship with his father, McNeil received his education in Northern Ireland. In 1898, when John McNeil could no longer take care of Thomas McMurdo Co., Chemists, McNeil became the owner at just 19 years old. He also introduced the first soda fountain to Newfoundland in 1905.
McNeil was also involved in not only the pharmaceutical community but the Scottish community as well. He was the first commanding officer of the Newfoundland Highlanders. They were founded under the auspices of the Scotch Kirk (Church.) The group was formed in 1907 and made their first public appearance in 1908. Between 1906 and 1918, he was a member, and later the chairman of the Board of Managers of the Church. In terms of pharmaceutical matters, McNeil was the first president of the Pharmaceutical Society which was formed in 1910. The first pharmacy exams were also held in his home the same year.
Tragically, McNeil died in the sinking of the Florizel in 1918, he was 41 years old. After his death, the Pharmacy Society held a meeting and they said, “The most honorable man I have ever known. To we druggists he is a loss we cannot replace… not only a good man, but the best man God ever made.”
Transcription from the Newfoundland Pharmacy Association Minutes Book
Report for 1917-18
Our annual meeting called for in Jany (January) has been unavoidably delayed and for circumstances owing to death of our dear friend Mr. McNeil and the absence of some of the Board from city we could not get a quorum.
Since last we met this Board has sustained a great loss in the tragic ending of Thos. McMurdo McNeil, on Sunday morning Mar 24/18 (should be February) he was drowned from the ill fated Florizel, he was mainly instrumental in forming this organization, he wished to encourage the uplifting of our profession and although some of us are not as enthusiastic as he I trust we will pick up his interest and keep going what he so ably fought for and established. Words of mine fail to express the man he was, personally I met him twenty years ago and during that time, first as my employer...
and later as a friend, I have found him the whitest, straightest, and most honourable man I have ever known. To we druggists he is a loss that we cannot replace. To his heart-broken wife and dear children and to his family in general this board tenders its heartfelt sympathy. In the obituary card which the firm issued one line strikes most forcibly. It says "He was a good man". These five small words signify a great deal, gentlemen he was not only a good man but the best man that God ever made.
June 22nd, 1881 - December 30th, 1964
Born in Ferryland, NL, Peter O’Mara went to Sisters of Mercy Convent for his early education, and completed it at St. Patrick’s Hall and St. Bonaventure’s College when his family moved to St. John’s. When Mr. O’Mara decided to pursue pharmacy as a career, he apprenticed at his uncle’s drug store, O’Mara’s Drug Store; this was the first Newfoundland-owned pharmacy.
After his apprenticeship, he worked at T. McMurdo & Co. In 1906, Mr. O’Mara established his first pharmacy after purchasing the building from another pharmacist, on 484-486 Water Street. Due to his thriving business, Peter purchased land at 488 Water Street and moved his pharmacy to the building that was constructed there. He operated at this location until his death at 83 years old, at this point his son, William, took over the business until it was closed in 1985.
Peter O’Mara was considered a professional and ethical man. He was one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Pharmacy Association in 1910 and overlooked the first pharmacy exams. He married Margaret J. Feehan on June 26th, 1912, and they had ten children together.
Flip through Peter O'Mara's Formula Book!
Peter O'Mara outside his original Pharmacy circa 1912
April 15th, 1901 - February 10th, 1967
Tommy Ricketts was born in Middle Arm, White Bay, Newfoundland. Many people know his name as he is a war hero, and the youngest soldier to receive the Victoria Cross, which he was rewarded for his actions on October 14th, 1918. When the platoon he belonged to suffered severe casualties, Tommy volunteered to go forward and try to outflank the enemy. When his ammunition gave out, he doubled back about 100 yards to get ammunition. With his accurate shooting, he drove the enemy into a farm. His platoon then advanced without casualties and captured eight guns and eight prisoners.
What is less known of Mr. Ricketts is that he was a pharmacist when he returned from the war. Unable to read or write, he sought education as soon as he came home; rather than going back to Middle Arm, he decided to stay in St. John’s. He received his basic education at Bishop Feild College in 1920, along with other men returning from the war. He then attended Memorial College in 1925, and after one year of studying, he began his apprenticeship at T. McMurdo & Co. In 1933, Mr. Ricketts married a woman named Edna, they had 2 children together.
Sadly, in 1967, Mr. Ricketts died of a heart attack while working in his pharmacy. His wife was left with very little, as the pharmacy was quite rundown, and Mr. Ricketts did not pick up his Victoria Cross pension cheque for quite some time. Joey Smallwood, the Premier during that time, held a state funeral for Tommy, not only to honor his life but to ease the financial burden on his wife.
Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Johns
January 11th, 1897 - July 4th, 1983
Born in St. John’s, Miss Johns went by Bessie when she was alive. She received her early education at the Methodist College. After high school, she worked as a medical secretary at Dr. Cluny Macpherson’s office; he invented the gas mask used in World War 1. After Macpherson left for the War, Miss Johns decided to pursue pharmacy as a profession. She began working as an apprentice with T. McMurdo and Company at the branch store on Rawlin’s Cross. The store was purchased in 1919 by Leo O’Mara and renamed O’Mara-Martin Drug Company, she continued her apprenticeship here.
From 1927 to 1928, Miss Johns attended pharmacy classes at Memorial College. Graduating with honors, she became the first female pharmacist in Newfoundland. That same year, she registered with the Newfoundland Pharmaceutical Association. Miss Johns worked at O’Mara-Martin Drug Company until her retirement in 1965; she was made an honorary life member of the NL Pharmacy Association.
In her personal life, Miss Johns never married or had children. She lived with her older sister on 5 Howley Avenue Extension. Bessie had another sister named Anne, who lived in England. In her later life, Miss Johns was part of the Zonta Club. This club was founded in New York in 1919 and aimed to improve and empower the status of women at the local and global levels. Miss Bessie Johns undoubtedly paved a pathway for later female pharmacists in the province.
Bessie Johns, Christmas 1926
Inside of one of Bessie Johns' textbooks dated 1928.
Prescription container and glass container from O'Mara-Martin Drug Co. where Bessie Johns worked as a pharmacist.