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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Museu da Farmacia in Lisbon

What is the Museu da Farmacia?

The Museu da Farmacia, or Pharmacy Museum in English, is a museum in Lisbon that charts the development of pharmacy from the ancient world to the modern day.

Museu da Farmacia

Museu da Farmacia History

Pharmacy, the science concerned with the production and prescription of medicinal drugs, dates back thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians were well aware of the therapeutic effects of various plants and established the first pharmacological schools in order to study and appreciate their potential. Across ancient cultures physician-priests fell into two separate categories: those who tended to the sick, and those who prepared remedies in the temple. This division continued through to the European Middle Ages, when practitioners served either as physicians or as herbalists supplying the former with the ingredients used to cure their patients. And these traditions were present even at the symbolic advent of modernity: in the United States, the great 18th-century statesman Benjamin Franklin was also a scientist, and appointed an apothecary to his newly established Pennsylvania Hospital, thereby reinforcing this division of pharmacist and physician. The enlightened world over whose creation Franklin presided likes to think it has progressed to a more rational mindset than the one which requires physician-priests; Lisbon’s Museum of Pharmacy serves to remind us of where our science comes from.

Of course, the drugs administered in previous centuries were a far cry from those found in today’s hospitals and pharmacies. During the Middle Ages, there was a thriving trade in vipers, whose dried blood served as a prominent ingredient in theriac, a concoction used to combat conditions like syphilis and the plague. Other popular and curious drugs included unicorn horn – taken in practice from narwhal tusks – and toad stones, which were allegedly removed from the reptile’s head. The devices and containers used to preserve these and many other strange substances live on to be pondered here at the Museum of Pharmacy, whose extensive collection contains pieces from as far back as the 8th century BC.

Although the museum opened in 1996, it took many years to build up a collection of artefacts fully to represent pharmacy’s varied, global history. For over a decade, the administrators worked to acquire pieces at international auctions as well as from private collections. The museum’s great effort paid off: the permanent exhibition offers you a comprehensive walk through pharmacological history, displaying everything from ancient Greek containers and Egyptian funerary decorations, to majestic Portuguese apothecary jars and mesmerising funerary figures from the Congo.

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