Basel's Delightful Museums for Doctors (Part 1): The Pharmacy-Historical Museum

It's no surprise that Basel, home of pharmaceutical industry heavyweights, is also home to a wonderful pharmacy museum.

It’s no surprise to find a pharmacy museum down a side street in Basel, the busy city in the far north of Switzerland at Totengässlein 3, Basel. What physician hasn’t prescribed a drug for a patient that didn’t come from one of the colossi of the pharmaceutical world? And what doctor from way back wasn’t pleased once to find a drug company out there was printing a calendar of four-color images showing the history of medicine?

You might want to use your favorite search engine; the museum isn’t exactly easily found!

It’s also no surprise that when the Swiss talk about history they take you into the Middle Ages, into a basement of that era because that’s where all the work was done. Visitors to this museum soon find themselves in a cellar as they pass by an impressive bottle that either belonged to Paracelsus himself or simply contained one of his elixirs. The former, of the alchemist Paracelsus is possible because he studied medicine and many other disciplines at the University of Basel in the 1500s. Paracelsus means “next” to Celsus who was evidently a Roman scholar born about the time of Jesus, who was an authority on matters medical and more. Had Celsus been born one millennium and a half later, he’d have been given what is now a cliché: “a Renaissance Man.” I don’t really remember anything of Celsus but I do a bit about Paracelsus. Dr. Douglas Guthrie, our lecturer in Medical History in our med school in Edinburgh was delighted to tell us of his, Guthrie’s, respect for Paracelsus because Paracelsus prefaced his lectures once by publically burning Galen’s volumes. (I recall a hot shot in our class determined to be a surgeon and frustrated by the delays by our history lectures offering a stage whisper, “Me? I’d like to burn Guthrie’s History of Medicine!”)

Yet a few moments in any pharmacology museum shows the connections between medieval medicine and botany and chemistry. It sometimes seems the science is more in the other disciplines and not so much in medicine itself in the Middle Ages. It was once true that the only educated persons in any medieval village were the doctor, the school teacher, and the clergyman. Indeed in the poem, The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith (died 1774) wrote about the wide-eyed peasants and, in contrast, the village schoolteacher, “…And still they gazed and still the wonder grew. That one small head could carry all he knew…”

The basement laboratory. The bottle of Paracelsus’ Elixir. Portrait of former pharmacist Carl Emil Ringk von Wildenberg: One would have thought with a name so easily recognized his data would have been more easily found. Cartoon figure of the apothecary.

In pharmacy museums we expect to see paintings of scenes from the past, tributes to internationally famous chemists and, of course, skulls. This museum is no exception.

Interior of an apothecary by Egbert de Heemskerk 1634—1704 undated. Tribute to Herman Boerhaave, the famous Leiden physician whose students came from all over Europe including Linnaeus, Peter the Great and Voltaire.

I don’t think I would have recognized the contents of the bottles even if the labels were in Olde English.

A variety of Terra Medicata from all over the Middle Ages, Holy Earths whose dates have not yet expired.

But dozens and dozens of little button-like pieces of Holy Earth are on display, placebo offerings of the medieval church, sold like “indulgencies.” They were sold, today’s historians say, as much for the money as for any comfort they might be thought to bring poor ignorant souls in torment. Today’s scientists may now raise their eyebrows at what was happening then, but it still goes on. The Internet still exploits those suffering misfortune; much of the web’s advertising is based on junk science and the placebo belief.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.