The Beautiful Pharmacies

Officina of the Benedictine monastery at Schwarzach

It’s strange to think of pharmacies as beautiful. These days, they are more like hospital dispensaries, or small stores which contain many things besides medicine.

But not long ago, they were magnificent places to see. Last week we showed how, in the East, the Arabs began the first pharmacies. In the West, before science could determine a proven cause and effect for illnesses, many people viewed illness as a punishment or a trial from the gods or from fate. So throughout history there were often close connections between theology and medicine. Often, the healer was a person of divinity or faith.

In ancient Greece, Asklepios, a son of Apollo, was venerated as a powerful god of healing. The sick would spend the night in his temple, hoping the god would appear in a dream, bring healing, or reveal the treatment. His daughter Hygieia is considered as goddess of health. Her very name gives us the word “hygiene.” The Romans adopted Asklepios and called him Aesculapius, embodied in the snake.

Emperor Frederick II in 1231 officially recognized pharmacies as commercial entities with duties and rights. These dispensaries or apothecaries first began as medieval stalls or huts, surrounding churches, where people would buy herbs, oils and other remedies. Later these apothecaries were run out of offices, and medicine was dispensed from a window. Medicine would advance during the Renaissance from belief in miracle cures, faith healing, alchemy and superstition, to scientific exploration, experimentation, discipline and higher knowledge.

Early pharmacies in the West were beautiful, with therapies on display in porcelain or ceramic jars with Delft-like color and decorations, seated in rows on mahogany shelves. The Officina of the Benedictine monastery at Schwarzach, in the first half of the 18th century, was beautiful, with Baroque style furnishings. In the center of the pharmacy was the preparation table, with sixty carefully labeled drawers. Aesculapius, the antique god of healing, and his daughter Hygieia, kept an eye on the preparations. They hold their typical symbols, the staff and the snake. We still use the staff and snake to denote medical treatment.

You can view this pharmacy in Heidelberg, Germany at the Pharmacy Museum, as well as several others, to get a sense of how beautiful they were.

Notes from a visit to the German Pharmacy Museum, 2015

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