Agatha Christie and drug dispensing

Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling authors of all time. During the interwar period, she was already an incredibly prolific and popular author and one of the key proponents of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Over the years, Christie became well-known for often using poison as the murder weapon in her stories. Almost always, the poisons she had her murders used were real, and the effects she described were scientifically accurate.[1]

The reason Christie was able to use poison to such effect in her writing was because during the First World War, she had worked as a medical dispenser in a hospital in Devon, mixing drugs as prescribed by the hospital’s doctors. Her training for this role required her to learn all about medicine and poisons, and it was during this same period that she worked on her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (featuring Hercule Poirot and strychnine as the murder weapon). During the Second World War, Christie would once again take up a role as dispenser in a hospital.[2]

Thus, Agatha Christie is probably the best-known dispenser of the First World War, but that it was a growing profession which women were encouraged to join is evidenced by the 1917 book How to become a dispenser: The new profession for women.[3] This slender volume was written by academic and author Emily L.B. Forster, who also penned How to become a woman doctor (1918); Analytical chemistry as a profession for women (1920); and, later, Everybody’s Vegetarian Cookbook (1930). As these titles demonstrate, Forster was clearly passionate about encouraging female participation in the sciences.

How to become a dispenser was written during the First World War, when professional opportunities opened up for women due to the large number of men being called up to the front. This is acknowledged in the book’s opening line: ‘There are few professions in the present day whose doors are not open to women.’[4] Yet for Forster, dispensing has the potential to be a fulfilling lifelong career for women, not just a stop-gap during the war. To that end, she encourages readers to undertake the training and qualifications required to become a dispenser.

As outlined in the book, there were two different possible qualifications an aspiring dispenser could attempt: assistant dispenser, which required six months of training; or pharmacist, which took three years to complete. Agatha Christie completed the shorter qualification to become an assistant dispenser. In a time when ‘patent’ (pre-made and mass produced) medicines were rare and treated with some suspicion, dispensers and pharmacists were a key part of the medical infrastructure and required to mix medications precisely to doctor’s orders. The role required a thorough understanding of botany, chemistry and physiology and a great deal of accuracy, as the difference between a medicine and a poison could be minimal.

Forster encourages student-dispensers to enrol in a pharmaceutical college for six months to learn for the assistant-dispenser qualification. Those wanting to aim for the more comprehensive pharmacist diploma are advised to apprentice themselves to either a chemist or a hospital dispensing department. Assistant dispensers had to be at least 19 to take the exam; pharmacists had to be 21 to qualify. In either case a ‘girl’ had to have completed secondary school at least; that, in addition to the further study required, marked dispensing out as a career for better-off women. (Indeed, Christie came from a fairly upper-class family).

The benefits of the role were clear to Forster, who herself was a career scientist. There was plenty of work in the field, and the role was active: ‘although it is an indoor occupation, it means constantly moving about in the dispensary, and is not so sedentary as most indoor work.’[5] Depending on the position, hours could be fairly regular and when working in a chemist or pharmacist, there would be no need to wear a uniform.[6] Within the dispensary, there was freedom to organise the work to one’s own taste. For the most ambitious women, there was scope to set up their own business, perhaps in partnership with another woman – although readers were warned that in existing chemist shops they would be unlikely to tolerate a woman to be the boss of male dispensers: ‘a woman at the head might not be a recommendation to the aspiring [male] chemist.’[7]

In terms of pay, an assistant dispenser working at a hospital, like Agatha Christie, could expect anything between 30s and £3 a week ‘according to the size of the hospital and the position held by the dispenser.’[8] The downside of working in a hospital was that it would be necessary to cover Sunday and evening shifts in rotation.

The back of the book included adverts for no less than twelve different pharmaceutical colleges, confirming Forster’s opinion that there was plenty of opportunity in this field of work during the First World War. Although Agatha Christie used her experience as a dispenser as fuel for her creative career, for other women becoming a dispenser could be a route into satisfying scientific work which was intellectually challenging, responsible and independent. Scientists like Emily Forster told their readers that it was completely within their abilities to succeed in a career path of their choice. Even after the First World War, books such as these continued to encourage women to participate in the world of work on their own terms.

[1] Carla Valentine, Murder isn’t easy: The forensics of Agatha Christie (London: Sphere, 2021), p. 309

[2] Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: A very elusive woman (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2022)

[3] Emily L.B. Forster, How to become a dispenser: The new profession for women (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1917)

[4] Ibid., p. 1

[5] Ibid., p. 9

[6] Ibid., p. 42

[7] Ibid., pp. 39-40

[8] Ibid., p. 41