Poland: Krakow's Museums of Heavenly Bodies and Down-to-Earth Pharmacology

In historic Krakow, take a tour through the city's impressive Museum of Pharmacy and its Library Museum at Jagiellonian University.

We suspect that even when travelers are spoiled on luxury European tours with fine dining they don’t gain weight because they walk so much — and on cobblestones. Indeed, a stout pair of well broken-in walking shoes may be the most important item in your baggage. Which ones? We like Mephisto shoes; a podiatrist we know wears Ecco. Furthermore, a boot maker in Fredericksburg, TX once told us the secret of avoiding hammertoes as you get older is not buying wider shoes but longer ones because feet elongate with age. (Things med school never told you!)

Let’s Walk

If you’ve come with us so far to St. Mary’s Church on the northeast side of the main square in Krakow you will see your location marked with a blue dot on the map that Google has been kind enough to let us use. It is a mere two-minute walk to the Museum of Pharmacy at 25 Florianska. Several visitors have found the location hard to find because the entrance doesn’t have prominent signs and some have confused this pharmacy museum with a smaller one, the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, once owned by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish pharmacist who lived from 1908 to 1993 and did much to protect those in the Jewish Ghetto. He had the distinction of being given the award of Righteous Among the Nations for his determination to help his fellow Poles during the Holocaust.

This is the smaller pharmacy museum in the ghetto that was run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz not the one we visited, although this memorabilia we photographed was at the larger museum on Florianska.

We thought the museum on several floors would be “same old, same old” namely lots of bland apothecary jars but, on the contrary, it gave a most interesting review of pharmacy over the centuries.

The lobby has a 1625 message on the wall, a Latin inscription from a 17th century pharmacy. The English translation is: "This is a house dedicated by Hygeia to the ill. May all medicaments be pleasant and cure all kinds of illnesses. What the hand of Phoebe (ie, Apollo, the patron of doctors) wisely prescribes, may the apothecary rightly perform. May the Lord in His mercy always take care of our health."

Although everything on the upper levels is elegant and professional, down in the basement lie some of the superstitions and symbols of the apothecary including suspended serpents, skeletons, glass vials and paintings from the Middle Ages. We’d seen some of David Teniers the Younger’s surgical scenes at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum before, and greeted him like a friend in Krakow.

We were charmed to see how the exhibits of this pharmacy museum made an effort to show visitors the source of many pharmaceuticals over the year including, stag horn, beetles, papers and even corals. Additionally it was great fun to try and identify all the worthy citizens around a dying man who were criticizing him for using credit not cash in his transactions. We are not enthusiastic users of Wikimedia Commons but there is a useful enlargement of this circa 1655 art where if you click here and scroll your cursor over the figures you will indeed see which one represents the barber surgeon

More sources of Middle Ages pharmaceuticals.

If you have seen enough of the pharmacy museum and look again at our Google map you will see the yellow dot — where you are now – is a mere eight-minute walk to the red dot of the Library Museum of the Jagiellonian University.

And if you arrive at the correct moment (every two hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) on the library clock you will observe a protocol that has gone on for centuries: the parade of professors past the clock as it chimes the time.

There is a majesty to medieval universities that we can’t match in today’s universities, but look at the courage the Jagiellonian University showed in such a strongly Catholic city that it would display the busts of the two most famous revolutionary scientists in Europe: Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (bottom image; 1564-1642). Copernicus died shortly after his book was published but Galileo went to prison for opposing church doctrine.

Amongst treasures in this ancient university are original documents referring to its most famous student, Nicholas Copernicus. The bottom image shows the names including his when he matriculated; framed, it hangs on the wall beside a NASA photograph of Earth that came as a gift from Neil Armstrong inscribed, “On the 500th birthday of a Giant.” Above that image are three images of the small metal globe created in 1510 (original at top) that show a continent in the Indian Ocean east of Africa labeled America. For more information click here. This is the first known depiction of America on a globe even if placed too far to the east. The larger globe (middle images) is a larger replica to make the situation clearer to visitors. The original attendance of Copernicus at Jagiellonian University is framed beside the larger globe

Our guide walks us through the library museum. He stops under a famous painting of a young Copernicus who is portrayed as morose because he has had to yield his scientific knowledge to the church — and renounce his beliefs. The guide says the library has a legend that Copernicus sometimes cries over that and the tears collect in a puddle on the carpet. And, indeed, the carpet looks moist at that spot.

Physicians vacationing in Krakow who have been to both the pharmacy and the Jagiellonian University museums might contrast the hocus pocus of medieval pharmacology with the Jagiellonian’s genuine attempts to achieve scientific knowledge using instruments.

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.