Mummies, lizards, stones: the wondrous ingredients of old medicines

Again, the line between alchemist and apothecary was once very fine, and the things once used to create medicine were wondrous indeed. Many also suspicious, invented, disgusting. And far too many argued as aphrodisiacs.

Of course there were herbs, wondrous herbs. The smell in the attic of Krakow’s wondrous Pharmacy Museum was amazingly pungent and sweet.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Dragon’s Blood, sadly only a combination of powdered plants with astringent qualities:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Mandrake, not a screaming homunculus pulled from the earth, but a funny shaped root:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Herbs, roots, flowers, leaves, seeds were not the only things used in medicines, however. Clay and other minerals dug from the earth such as lazurite, orpiment, sulphus, chalcanthite, and talc were also used. Here is cinnabar for treating wounds and ‘women’s problems’, and today used for acne — I love these intensely coloured powders.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Hematite powered and used to cleanse wounds and to treat blood diseases. Copper sulfate good for scars, and for its antibacterial properties.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Skinks! Dried and ground they became a ‘panacea’ for many things, and the old aphrodisiac standby…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Powders of scorpions, snakes and lizards — powdered cockroaches, crab’s stones, powdered oysters, sea sponges, musk, earthworm oil and leeches were also of course in use:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Castor, or the powdered glands of beavers — look at that picture! A stimulant, antispasmodic, good for hysteria from sexual causes…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Spermacetti, or sperm whale oil…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

‘Unicorn horn’, powdered, good as a universal antidote and of course, an aphrodisiac. Really, narwhal of course, or anything approaching powdered horn…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Powdered horn, and ivory looks just like it, tusks of walrus and hippopotamus…once believed a universal cure and aphrodisiac:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Bezoars! found in the stomachs of ruminants, they look very cool but are really just hollow spheres made up of fur and undigested plant remains. But I still love imagining them as universal cures…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Spanish flies, whose smell alerts you to their presence, who blood causes painless blisters. Crushed they were used as a diuretic, but more famously as an aphrodisiac and older form of viagra — but you had to be very very careful you didn’t get it wrong…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Human scalp made into a panacea — also collected and used were human fat, ox bile, bull’s blood, and calf’s stomach.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Powdered mummy:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Dried lizards, coral and pearls:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Pharmacists were also apparently the principal makers and purveyors of candles and sealing wax until the 18th century, as wax was another key ingredient in ointments and plasters. I loved this way of making them:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

And of everything, perhaps this was the most incredible…Multiple use laxative pills of antimony. Crikey. You had to swallow — retrieve — clean — repeat.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Suddenly I realised it is not just the rows of bottles and jars, the mysterious names in Latin, but also the colours, smells, madness of what they held within them. The dreams they represent of cures for everything, of magic in the form of a powder or oil or pill. The intellectual endeavour they also represent, to explore the world and uncover what within it can ease our way through life and improve the days and years we are given. I owe so much to medicine as we know it, and its origins are here in these bottles and in this lore drawing on centuries of experimentation and learning.

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