Bill Horsfall is one of Australia’s oldest working pharmacists

Bill Horsfall PhC FPS
Bill Horsfall PhC FPS

Bill Horsfall PhC FPS at 84 is one of Australia’s oldest working pharmacists. Over the past 60 years, he’s been involved in hospital and community pharmacy, the Sydney Olympic Games and was Director of Pharmacy at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

You started your career in Queensland, apprenticed to a master pharmacist?

As a pharmacy apprentice in country Queensland in the late 1950s, all study was by correspondence, so it was a lesson in self-reliance, having to work all day and study after hours with no lecturers or tutors to assist.

My master pharmacist taught me how to weigh and measure ingredients accurately, to make mysterious concoctions (many of which had no therapeutic value and which relied on the magical powers of the placebo effect). Most of what I learned then is completely irrelevant in pharmacy today.

However, I did learn to be sceptical about then-accepted practice, to look for supporting credible evidence, ask why, and challenge what I thought to be wrong. Because of my perceived lack of knowledge, I embraced the concept of life-long learning.

Can you take us through your career?

I covered most aspects of pharmacy starting in 1960 in the Brisbane General Hospital manufacturing department. Then I was Chief Pharmacist, first at the Townsville General Hospital, then in late 1961 at Mackay Base Hospital, then back to managing a community pharmacy. Concurrently, 1960–1964, I was an officer in the Citizens Military Forces (now the Army Reserve) working in the Medical Corps, before moving to the Intelligence Corps and Infantry.

In 1962 it was a big move to work as relieving Chief Pharmacist in Victorian country hospitals, followed by a working holiday from 1964–67 in the United Kingdom in community and hospital pharmacy. Returning to Melbourne, I owned two community pharmacies, from 1967–82 and then moved into pharmacy education with PSA (VIC) for 23 years, with national Adventure Conferences a highlight.

In 2003 I moved into GP education with NPS MedicineWise as an academic detailer running clinical education sessions. I’m also education administrator for the PSA offshore refresher conferences.

And you retrained a towering literary figure in pharmacy?

A tall, imposing person walked into my pharmacy in Cairns and imperiously announced he was Xavier Herbert, a registered pharmacist who hadn’t practised for many years. He asked if I could help in his retraining, which I did. That was the start of a long friendship with this most interesting character of great literary skill and high intellect. He was a fascinating raconteur and a great adventurer. Like most Cairns locals, I had no idea of his literary fame, which peaked with his Miles Franklin award in 1975 for Poor Fellow My Country, then the longest English-language novel of all time.

How has pharmacy education changed and improved over the years?

Training in the early days focused on making medicines of dubious value accompanied by an emphasis on science, including a lot of chemistry. Most of it had little to do with actual practice, which had to be learned on the job. Pharmacy education today is light years ahead of the ‘old days’, is gratifyingly practice-orientated and backed by strong training in modern pharmacy sciences and strongly targeted to patient care and safety.

What new skills have you acquired during the pandemic?

Previously, my educational work was visiting GPs face-to-face in their practices, but now it’s virtual visits. Together with NPS MedicineWise colleagues, I now have new skills using teleconference platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams, and even FaceTime and telephone to deliver our sessions.

Any advice for young pharmacists?

Highly trained pharmacists today have a vital role in delivering medicines safely to the public as well as providing advice on health issues. If something is seen as ‘not quite right’, don’t be afraid to question and rectify the matter using your training and knowledge, keeping in mind the thousands of Australians hospitalised annually due to medication misadventure.

My advice to young pharmacists is to try every opportunity until you find your passion, then go for it!