Saturday, May 2, 2015

Early pharmacies at a glance

In ancient Greece and Rome, pharmacies were unknown - physicians prepared medical concoctions themselves, using herbs, vegetables, honey and animal parts. In the Middle Ages, both monasteries and castles had herbal gardens; medicinal herbs were carefully cultivated, dried and stored. (Even among the poor folk, a certain amount of herbal lore was common knowledge: every peasant's wife gathered wild herbs during spring and summer - mint and chamomile for stomach ailments, linden flowers for colds and fever, and so on). However, pharmacies as such were another matter. In German-speaking countries, they began to appear in cities from the 13th century onwards. The first pharmacy was founded in 1262 in Rostock. The next cities to follow were Hamburg (1265), Münster (1267), Wismar (1270), Augsburg and Magdeburg (1285). Apothecaries quickly became recognized as a separate class of medical professional; according to a law established in 1240 by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, no physician could run a pharmacy or work in one.

Medieval illustrations depicting the interior of a pharmacy show a single room with many shelves containing jars full of various ingredients. A helper is frequently pictured, busily pounding something in a mortar. Apart from herbs and mineral salts, a number of fanciful and disgusting substances were used to prepare medications: insects, dried frogs and snakes, the fur, blood, entrails and other body parts of various animals (snake flesh was thought to cure leprosy, while patients suffering from kidney stones were treated with ashes from a burnt hare's corpse), as well as animal and human feces. Yes, certain ailments were actually treated with potions containing feces. Yum.

Apothecaries were forbidden to give medical advice to patients; their job was to prepare medications according to a doctor's instructions. Certain preparations were also available without a prescription; these were so-called confections, made from sugar, fruits and spices. They were very popular, but usually possessed little medicinal activity. Such spice- or fruit-based conserves, candies or lozenges could soothe a sore throat, alleviate a cough, help with bad breath (a common complaint before toothbrushes came into use) or - in the case of confections containing caraway seeds - relieve flatulence. As late as the 19th century, conserve of rose petals (along with asses' milk) was recommended as a treatment for tuberculosis of the lungs.

Before written prescriptions came into use, physicians would personally go to the pharmacy and issue instructions to the apothecary, using a long staff to indicate the - often richly decorated - jars that contained the required ingredients. If the patient was severely ill, the medicine had to be prepared at once; the doctor would return with the freshly made potion, electuary or ointment and oversee its administration.

A 15th century French apothecary. (Source: Wikipedia)

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