Colonial power


The public health service on the Danish West Indies was established during the period of approximately 1755-1800. It was constructed as a miniature model of the domestic version in Denmark. But transplanting and constructing that structure in the Caribbean was not without problems, and one of the problems was the pharmacies.
Riise's Pharmacy in Charlotte Amalie.
Riise’s Pharmacy in Charlotte Amalie, ca. 1850. Lithograph by Tegner & Kittendorff after a drawing by F. Visby. Maritime Museum of Denmark, file no. 000010744.

In Denmark, it was illegal beginning in 1672 for anyone other than pharmacists to prepare and sell medicine. In order to work as a pharmacist, a royal privilege was required. But the Danish-West Indian community was strongly influenced by the British colonial culture, in which the health service was a business on market terms which the state did not involve itself in. The uncontrolled access to health care services now collided with the more controlling Danish medical legislation, for example concerning the pharmacists.

Royal pharmacies

In the Danish colony, it had traditionally been the doctors in private practice who imported, produced and sold medicine. From the 1770s to the 1840s the Danish authorities attempted to change that but with little luck. They established royal pharmacies on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John and tried to make it more difficult to get access to medicines. The first pharmacist privilege was issued in 1770 to one Jürgen Friderich Werligh.

Difficult to stop trade in medicine

But the doctors were making good money on medicines, so the lawmakers had difficulty in stopping the trade. In 1826, pharmacist Peder Eggert Benzon (1788-1848) received an official right to operate a pharmacy in Christiansted. But the local doctors were still permitted to supply their patients with medicine. Not until 1840 did the pharmacists get a monopoly on sales of medicine. It was also around that time that privileged pharmacies were established in the colony’s two other towns. This was in 1838 in Charlotte Amalie by Albert Heinrich Riise (1810-1882) and in Frederiksted in 1839 by Samuel Frederik Grove (1802-1870).

Self-help culture

The freer dealing in medicine was not limited to the doctors but widely spread among the colony’s population generally. The local doctors reported to the wondering authorities in Copenhagen that the inhabitants had a strong tradition of importing medicine for private use. In other words, they made diagnoses themselves, treated themselves and gave medical advice to friends and acquaintances. Therefore, most Europeans in the colony had a well-stocked medicine cabinet or a medicine chest for treating their family and sick enslaved laborers.


Niklas Thode Jensen: En verden til forskel? Undersøgelser af lægerne og sundhedsvæsenet i Dansk Vestindien mellem 1755 og 1830 (“A world apart? Studies of the doctors and the health authority in the Danish West Indies between 1755 and 1830″). Bibliotek for Læger, Part 4 (December), 194th annual edition, 2002. pp. 281-297.


Medicine chest from the Danish West Indies.
Medicine chest from the Danish West Indies. Manufactured in the United States in the latter half of the 1800s. Medicinsk Museion, object record no. 2787.