Secrets of the German Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg

The German Pharmacy Museum (or Deutsches Apotheken Museum) is a small, intriguing museum but one in which you can spend hours as there are over 20 000 objects on display! This museum was the highlight of my recent trip to Heidelberg, Germany and I highly recommend visiting it as it’s a great experience for the whole family and you will definitely learn something you didn’t know before.

Situated at the Heidelberg Castle, the museum is accessible by funicular or by a ten to fifteen minute hike up hill. I recommend the audio guide available for €3.50 to give you the history of the museum – a must as it is rather difficult to place the displays in context without being able to read German. And the actual ticket to the museum is available as a combination ticket to the castle grounds as well. This ticket costs €6.

From the onset and from the building’s outer appearance one can only imagine the hidden treasures that lay within.

When inside, you are transported into another world. Here you’ll learn about the history of pharmacy and medicine as we have come to know it today. Ours is indeed a tumultuous time when it comes to medicine since large, profit-driven pharmaceutical companies dominate the industry. The rapid innovations of the last hundred years have helped in many ways but have also hindered in others. The once colourful apothecaries have been replaced by the white, staleness of hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies. And no where is this more evident than at the Germany Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg. Here you see a true apothecary, or pharmacy if you will, and very unlike our sterile, modern day counterparts.

The old apothecary at the museum is in its fully preserved state. Hundreds of bottles, beautifully labelled in a calligraphy script each have their place within a very large, ornate shelving system.

I found these many cabinets containing remedies to be the highlight of the trip and most fascinating indeed.

And there is a definite focus on herbal and natural remedies which has been somewhat lost in today’s world. There is a also an artisan feel to the place; each little bottle or container seems to have something really precious and magical within it.

After observing the hundreds of little bottles on shelves from afar you get to see some of these up-close in another room. This is where the fun starts – you get to try and decipher what the heck some of these rather odd looking ingredients were used for and where they come from…in some instances, you’d prefer not to know (trust me).

For instance, axungia hominis (human fat) and the fat from animals were used since the 16th century as an important component of ointments. Kind of gross but true! In Europe, human fat was actually believed to have magical properties and fat would be obtained from the bodies of those who were executed as a result of crimes they conducted.

And yes, that is some sort of weird fish with ‘legs’ called the stincus marinus as seen below…Apparently a powder was made from this animal and it was given as a remedy to children who had worms…

And these little glass viles together with the book below (Journal der Pharmacie) date from 1794! The book was written by Johann Bartholomaus Trommsdorf. This is demonstrative of the art form of remedies in those days – there was something very special about the appearance of each bottle. And this is particularly profound since today many of the plastic medicine containers we come across are mass produced and are not particularly attractive.

We all know the modern-day version of Aspirin, but how exactly was it packaged years ago when it first came onto the market? Take a look at these retro Aspirin labels below from the 19th century and compare this to what Aspirin now looks like in your own medicine cabinet…Pretty different huh?

In fact, the actual interior decor of apothecaries in those times were really meant to attract people and lure them in. Take for instance the stuffed aligator hanging from the roof, demonstrative of the natural cures once available but also quite a talking point for customers!

In the basement of the German Pharmacy Museum you also get to see the laboratory where the remedies were produced and some of the containers used in the creation thereof.

Temperatures were cooler down below so it was ideal to use that space as the production room in order to preserve the ingredients and store the final remedies.

There are also some interactive exhibits for children so while parents are observing the hundreds glass bottles and strange objects, children can play and learn at the same time.

In closing, there is a certain nostalgia and magic present here and I left thinking whether our current day medicine practices and the marketing thereof effectively serve today’s society. So if you are interested in the progression of remedies and medicine as a craft to its modern-day academic positioning and mass production methods then I highly recommend visiting the German Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg.