Basel Pharmacy Museum: An Interview

The Recipes Project heads to Basel, Switzerland, to learn about the collections of the Pharmacy Museum. Laurence Totelin spoke with Philippe Wanner,  Barbara Orland, Corinne Eichenberger and Martin Kluge.

The Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

Could you give us a brief overview of your collections? How and when were they gathered together?

In 1924, when the pharmacist and historian Professor Josef Anton Häfliger began teaching at the University of Basel, he donated his private collection of pharmaceutical objects and historical books to the university. Since then, and until his death in 1954, Häfliger worked hard to collect further objects and money to built up a pharmacy museum. He designed the museum to teach first his students, and, second, the wider public about the historically outdated aspects of the apothecary’s work. Materia medica obsoleta, for instance, is the name he gave the room that until today exhibits remedies, drugs and medicinal objects of the three kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, animal/human), folk medicine and exotica brought from overseas to Swiss pharmacies since the seventeenth century. Häfliger was lucky to purchase further private collections. For instance, he acquired the collection of the Basel apothecary Theodor Engelmann (b. 1851), who had specialized in mineralogy and mineral drugs. Moreover, he was clever enough to impose conditions on the deed of donation. Amongst other things, he determined that the museum should remain part of the pharmacy department and function as an object for study.

The herbarium, the Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

You are located in a beautiful building. Can you tell us a little but about its history?

The museum is located in the so-called “Haus zum Vorderen Sessel”. This building was first mentioned in 1296 when it was used as a public bathhouse fed by water from the “Goldbrunnen” (Gold Well). The most famous part of the building’s history began around 1490, when the book printer Johannes Amerbach opened up a printing house, taken over in 1507 by another famous printer, Johannes Froben. A number of noteworthy humanist scholars, such as Erasmus von Rotterdam, resided and worked here. These writers were joined by recognized illustrators, such as Hans Holbein the Younger. Theophrastus von Hohenheim (commonly known as Paracelsus) practiced medicine in this house as the Froben family physician between 1526 and 1527. Subsequently, the house changed hands several times. In 1814, it housed the first public school for girls in Basel. More than 80 years later it became the Vocational School for Women. Finally, the University’s first Institute of Pharmacy was built up here since 1917 until the year 2000. The scientific collection, since 1925 open for the wider public, remained in the building.

You are a University Museum. What is your relation with the University of Basel?

As a donation of one of the pharmacy professors the collection belongs until today the Department of Pharmacy of the University of Basel. The large lecture room is used for history of science seminars and lectures, but it also belongs to the university facilities.

The Alchemy Room, Pharmacy Museum. Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

The team working at the museum is interdisciplinary. Can you tell us a bit about how your work as a team?

In our museum we are used to work together over disciplinary boarders. Some studied biology some pharmacy some contemporary dance some history or medieval music. Most of the daily working fields like collection traffic, communication, pharmaceutical safety issues or scientific research are personalised and belong to the field of activity of one or two colleagues. For special events or special exhibitions these fields sometimes get newly organised. It is very fruitful to work in an interdisciplinary context where the borders are fluently between science, arts and humanities.

Pharmazie-Historisches Museum Basel

Can you give us a few highlights from your collections? Do you have favourites?

The museum is home to numerous exotic lures and unusual objects (like stuffed alligators, a porcupine fish, the enormous tooth of narwhal, or ‘unicorn’ horns) that apothecaries formerly used to attract the attention of their customers, but which also demonstrated their interests in natural history. The stocks of exotic drugs and objects that colonization brought to early modern pharmacies is quite large too.

What is the most ancient artefact you have? What is the most recent?

The most ancient artefacts are supposed to be our mummy artefacts. Indeed, crushed and powdered chunks of Egyptian mummies were used as medicine for various illnesses such as ailments of the lung, of the spleen, stitches in the side and external wounds during the 15th century. However, the various vessels with the inscription Mumia vera aegyptica and Mumia vera and wooden boxes in the museum date back to the 18th century; a glass vessel from around 1920 bears the following inscription: “Engelmann ‘s pharmacy, Mumia vera, Basel Untere Rheingasse 2”. In addition, under the name “Mumia vera” the exhibition shows mummified body parts such as a foot, a head and upper and lower legs shown. Other vessels also contain volatile human brain salt (Sal crani humani volatile), small white and pebble-like chunks, which are marked as prepared human brain bowl (Cranium humanum preap.).  The Pharmacy Museum commissioned the analysis of such and similar fragments. An anthropologist has examined the substances. With respect to the brown chunks, he concluded that it is material that has solidified inside a skull of liquid form. The other Mumia specimens clearly contained coccyx bone, and parts of a human brain shell, which are filled with a shiny asphalt-like mass. How old these actually are remains an open question.

Some of the most ancient artefacts in fact come from Augusta Raurica – a Roman colony near Basel. Roman medicinal tools, a spatula and copies of Roman cupping glasses, in short, the most important equipment of a physician in antiquity, are dated around 50 AC.

The most recent artefact is a playmobil figure — a pharmacist version with the German pharmacy logo.(Original Packing from 2015).

Medicinal jar collections, Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

How can scholars find out what is in your collections? In what ways can they work with your collections? 

The best way for scholars is to contact the museum staff. A direct conversation will figure out the possibility of working with our collection and archive.