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The German Museum of Pharmacy: A Historiographic Time Capsule

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This summer she visited the Deutsches Apotheken-Museum in Munich and has provided us with a review of its collections. All photos are courtesy of her as well. Enjoy!

During a two-month sojourn in Germany this summer, I eagerly anticipated a visit to Munich’s famed Beer and Octoberfest Museum—in the name of “research,” naturally. Less renowned than this hotspot and its many sister institutions, but equally relevant to historians of intoxicants, is the country’s sole attempt to reconstruct its pharmaceutical history: the Deutsches Apotheken-Museum (hereafter referred to as DAM), located since 1958 in the breathtaking Heidelberg Castle.

exterior of DAM

The exterior of the Deutsches Apotheken-Museum

Admission to DAM is included in the price of a castle ticket (7 euros for adults and 4 euros for students, children, and the elderly). Given its setting in one of Europe’s leading tourist destinations, it has the potential to attract as many as 12 million visitors annually. While it’s hard to imagine that most guests are drawn to the site by their interest in the history of pharmacy, the museum was surprisingly crowded on the Friday afternoon that I chose to visit. Deceptively large, it occupies an entire floor of a renovated Renaissance-era hall and displays over twenty thousand artifacts.

Inside, German- and English-language signage walks the viewer through the history of pharmacy in chronological order from antiquity to the mid-twentieth century. In keeping with scholarly perspectives more current at the time of the museum’s opening, “progress” is narrated in a classic triumphal mode. From its origins in Greco-Roman theories of bodily “humors,” superstition and alchemy, pharmacy is shown evolving into a standardized “scientific” discipline based on rigorous yet accessible knowledge of medicine, the body, and the natural world. The pharmacists themselves are depicted as heroes, with the museum dwelling on such proud moments as the emergence of a professional oath to do no harm and take little profit, and the discovery of insulin, vitamins, penicillin, quinine and Salvarsan (a cure for syphilis).

The collection boasts particular strength in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Twenty-eight glass cases present more than a thousand materia medica then in use, including mummy powder, narwhal tusk, snake venom, and excrement. A reconstructed storage room exhibits period mortars, scales, weights, containers, burners, furnaces, and distillation equipment. The highlight of the museum is three officinas (areas of pharmaceutical preparation; the predecessors of contemporary laboratories) reassembled virtually intact from original pieces. The earliest example was in use from the 1720s until its donation to the museum in 1961. Notably given its original location in a Benedictine abbey, the baroque-style workroom features not Christian symbols but rather statues of Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, and his daughter Hygieia. A second officina in rococo style opened in the 1730s to serve the court in Bamberg. On the ornate oak worktable sit numerous vessels of porcelain, which was fired for the first time at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Because it does not react with other substances, porcelain soon came into widespread use by pharmacists. A somewhat later officina from the city of Ulm, equipped around 1812 and bequeathed to the museum after World War II, reflects the impact of proliferating professional and state regulations. Cupboards and drawers displaying exterior labels open to reveal vials of substances arranged alphabetically. Double labeling not only facilitated efficiency but also prevented potential mix-ups in the context of a rapidly expanding pharmacopoeia. Original laboratory implements attest to the increasing complexity and precision of nineteenth-century production.

benedictine officina

Benedictine officina, early 18th century

Perhaps more difficult to reconcile with the triumphal mode, the twentieth century receives little space or attention. To its credit, the museum emphasizes the dispossession and annihilation of Jewish pharmacists under the Nazis. In 1932, Jews owned 7 percent of German pharmacies (25 percent in Berlin). Nearly half of these businesses were forcibly transferred to non-Jewish ownership between 1933 and 1945, while the majority of their owners were deported to concentration camps or forced into emigration. Particularly poignant is a signboard that once advertised a pharmacy whose owner fled Germany in 1933. The signboard subsequently hung over his new establishment in the city of Carmel (in present-day Israel). Non-Jewish pharmacists also suffered during World War II, with over forty percent of businesses destroyed in whole or part by Allied bombing.

German pharmacy sign

“Three spoons” pharmacy emblem: from Germany to present-day Israel and back again

While this commemoration of the victims of the Nazis is necessary and congruous with Germany’s contemporary memory industry, the failure to consider the collaboration as well as suffering of pharmacists is deeply problematic. As scholars have demonstrated, many pharmacists were complicit in Nazi genocidal activities including eugenics, the development of biological weapons, and the manufacture of gases used to asphyxiate inmates of concentration camps. It was also in German laboratories that morphine, heroin, cocaine and amphetamines were first synthesized. Though subsequently understood and restricted or banned as habit-forming and lethal, pharmacists continued to illicitly manufacture huge quantities of these drugs for vast profits. They also shared production knowledge with their counterparts worldwide, indirectly contributing to addiction crises throughout Europe and in Asia and the Americas.

Beyond these omissions, the museum’s apparent failure to update exhibits in recent decades means that the most significant development of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – the shift of market dominance from “mom and pop” pharmacies to mega-corporations – is not mentioned. (It should be noted here that Merck, Baxter, and other present-day pharmaceutical giants have made significant contributions to the museum.) The traditional and very limited definition of pharmacy as the discovery, manufacture and sale of medical preparations also prevents the telling of other, perhaps more interesting stories. Most conspicuously, the issue of pharmaceutical consumption is almost entirely ignored. When and why was drug-taking normalized as a health routine? What were the anticipated and reported effects of various preparations on the body? In what ways did information about drugs circulate? How did consumers understand “drugs” differently from other external influences on health, such as food, intoxicants, talismans, and behavioral modifications? Can we connect ideas about bodily autonomy to the rise of political and economic ideologies such as democracy, capitalism, socialism, and fascism?

The appeal of individual artifacts notwithstanding, DAM as a whole is primarily interesting as a historiographic time capsule. In the mid-twentieth century historians of science and medicine commonly viewed modernity as a triumph of enlightenment over ignorance, health over suffering, professionalism over amateurism, access over scarcity, chemistry over alchemy, and secularism over religion. Though scholars have long since challenged this interpretation, the German Museum of Pharmacy continues to commemorate this earlier understanding of human “progress.”



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