Only a thin line separated alchemy from old pharmacies once. Apothecaries (who only later became the mystery-stripped ‘pharmacies’ or even worse ‘drug stores’) once contained wondrous collections of barrels, bottles, alembics, retorts, crucibles, pestles and mortars, animals whose bodies and bones were crushed and used in medicines. Of the medieval collections in Krakow’s Pharmacy Museum, the notes quote Shakespeare:
I do remember an apothecary—And hereabouts he dwells—which late I notedIn tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,Culling of simples. Meager were his looks,Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,An alligator stuffed, and other skinsOf ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelvesA beggarly account of empty boxes,Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,Were thinly scattered to make up a show.–Romeo & Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
Cabinets of poisons clearly marked to avoid accident:
Great vaulted cellars, full of more wondrous things, above all the medicinal wine, either steeped in herbs or to be later mixed with dried herbal powders:
We found this hidden round a corner. I don’t even know what this is.
Old water distillers, coloured glass vials, presses, alembics:
As time moved on, techniques became refined, the furniture in polished inlaid wood of the Baroque or the Biedermeier style, the glass neatly labelled:
Rows and rows of canisters in glass and porcelain sitting above wonderful drawers of uniform shape, all rescued from old apothecaries across the city and brought here:
Hirudines! Aka leeches. A collection of more mortars and pestles, pictures of leading pharmacists of Krakow and their documents now of historical relevance rather than professional necessity:
Enormous mortars and pestles. And oh, my love for bottles and small labelled drawers full of strange powders and herbs and medicines overfloweth:
Old books are here also, with velveted covers:
Wooden boxes of superb craftsmanship filled with strange bottles and implements for the storing and mixing of musk:
Stoppered bottles of vibrant colour that make my heart beat faster:
Clear glass of strange shape and design:
Strange scissors of a shape perfectly crafted to an unknown task, old herbals, locked and keyed and made into beautiful works of art:
A map of plants and the ‘world’ as it was once believed to be:
Tiny glass vials and velveted boxes of syringes used and reused.
Cork-crushers and medicine makers
Herbs and storage
All found in the attic, where warmer and dryer air might do their work:
This is one of my favourite places in this city, and I will be writing more because this only scratches the surface of the apothecarial wonder.
Also, please let us resurrect the term apothecary and use it more in everyday life.
I shall end with another quote from the museum, this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:
The rudimentary laboratory—in addition to a profusion of pots, funnels, retorts, filters, and sieves—was made up of a primitive water pipe, a glass beaker with a long, thin neck, a reproduction of the philosopher’s egg, and a still the gypsies themselves had built in accordance with modern descriptions of the three-armed alembic of Mary the Jew. Along with those items, Melquíades left samples of the seven metals that corresponded to the seven planets, the formulas of Moses and Zosimus for doubling the quantity of gold, and a set of notes and sketches concerning the processes of the Great Teaching that would permit those who could interpret them to undertake the manufacture of the philosopher’s stone. Seduced by the simplicity of the formulas to double the quantity of gold, José Arcadio Buendía paid court to Úrsula for several weeks so that she would let him dig up her colonial coins and increase them by as many times as it was possible to subdivide mercury. Úrsula gave in, as always, to her husband’s unyielding obstinacy. Then José Arcadio Buendía threw three doubloons into a pan and fused them with copper filings, orpiment, brimstone, and lead. He put it all to boil in a pot of castor oil until he got a thick and pestilential syrup which was more like common caramel than valuable gold. In risky and desperate processes of distillation, melted with the seven planetary metals, mixed with hermetic mercury and vitriol of Cyprus, and put back to cook in hog fat for lack of any radish oil, Úrsula’s precious inheritance was reduced to a large piece of burnt hog cracklings that was firmly stuck to the bottom of the pot.
For more on apothecaries:
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