Ordinary pepper, powdered unicorns, human skullcaps. The exhibits brought together by the German Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Castle bear witness to the history of pharmacy—a world that is mundane, magical and bizarre all rolled into one.

How much magic is there in medicine? “Quite a bit” you realize upon a visit to the German Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Castle. Snakeskin, mandrake and bezoar are stored in glass cabinets, cupboards and beautifully decorated jars. You soon feel like you just stepped off the Hogwarts Express rather than the mountain railway in Heidelberg. Heavy mortars, long-nosed distilling devices and the thick stonewalls contribute to this. When you finally stand in front of the two-metre-long horn of a supposedly real unicorn, you are literally waiting for grouchy Professor Snape from one of the Harry Potter volumes to turn the corner.

Hogwarts? No, it’s real: the German Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Castle.

Fortunately, the only person waiting for the visitors this morning is Suzanne Trautmann—who is also in a cheerful mood. For more than ten years, she has been guiding visitors through the German Pharmacy Museum located in the Ottheinrichsbau, Ludwigsbau and Apothekerturm wings of the castle. “Magic and medicine have always been closely connected,” Suzanne acknowledges. ‘Mandrake and unicorn’ is the logical motto of the overview tour of the exhibition. The museum offers some 20 other guided tours, titled ‘plague breath and heavenly scent,’ ‘peppered medicine’ or ‘murder from a delicate hand,’ among others. In addition, you can book organised children’s birthday parties, workshops to acquire skills like pill-making as well as evening receptions with the castle’s catering service on offer. With 700,000 visitors per year, the museum is one of the most popular ones in Germany. According to the information published by it, it has the most extensive collection on the history of pharmacy in the world, displaying exhibits from four centuries. A garden has also been part of the museum since 2019 (read more about ‘green pharmacy’ in the related story about Weinheim). The museum was founded in Munich in 1937, where part of the collection was destroyed during the Second World War. The parts that remained intact first moved to Bamberg and then to Heidelberg in 1957. The museum is sponsored by the non-profit Deutsche Apotheken Museum-Stiftung foundation, supported by the Förderverein Deutsches Apotheken-Museum association and other donors.

On guided tours, Suzanne Trautmann opens cabinets that are usually closed to visitors.

Suzanne’s favourite exhibit nestles against the stonewall directly behind the reception counter: an apothecary’s cabinet from the Baroque period, which makes it about 300 years old. It used to stand in a monastery in Schongau, Bavaria. Suzanne opens the elaborately painted doors with care. Around 200 vials and jars come to light. They are painted, sealed with leather skins or corks, and are carefully labelled. ‘Bezoar’ is written on two vessels that look like drinking cups, ‘Serpent’ on another and ‘Cinabr.’ on one containing a red powder. The museum guide points to a shelf filled with small bottles. “Essential oils. It’s an absolute rarity that they have been preserved after such a long time.” Other active agents have not been this lucky and have been more or less affected by the passing of time. While the embossed seal can still be seen on some slightly deformed tablets, the globules next to them have melted into a single lump.

“Almost all vessels actually still contain what the labels on the outside say,” Suzanne reveals. She studied history at Heidelberg University with a focus on the medieval and early modern periods and has since specialised in the history of pharmacy. She believes that the study of this history allows many conclusions to be drawn about everyday life in times gone by. Some of the findings may send a shiver down your spine, because even the glass with the inscription ‘Cran. Hum.’, short for ‘Cranium Humanum,’ contains what the inscription suggests. “Yes, also humans were used as medicine,” the museum guide confirms the arising suspicion, although as an absolute exception. The jar contains the powder of a ground skullcap of a human being, which is supposed to help with epilepsy and headaches. At least the latter is indeed true. “We now know that this is due to the magnesium and calcium contained in the bones.” In the 18th century, however, it was believed that the powder was effective because of the doctrine of signatures. “Like for like,” the historian summarises the doctrine’s basic idea. In this case: What is made from the skullcap helps with diseases of the head. Saffron was used for jaundice. And mandrake, whose human-like shaped root was said to emit deadly screams, was used as a narcotic.

Magic and medicine have always been closely connected

Suzanne Trautmann

“People didn’t know about bacteria and viruses back then,” Suzanne explains. Until these were discovered in the 19th century, people had some fanciful ideas about how they got sick and got well again. Much of their understanding was based on the theories of the Greeks. Christian and Persian-Arab medicine influenced European medicine as well. This is reflected, for example, in the selection of raw and pharmaceutical substances used for therapeutic purposes, which include many spices from the Middle and Far East, such as pepper, nutmeg and saffron. They are said to have a stimulating, digestive, or even aphrodisiac effect—except for pepper. “Pepper was considered too hot and thus to have the opposite effect. It hinders the marital work, as it is termed in old pharmacopoeias.”

The treasure trove of medicines included around 2,000 active substances until the beginning of the 19th century. The German Pharmacy Museum dedicates a separate room to them. Some curiosities are stored in brightly lit display cases with arched windows. Such as the grey, waxy ambergris, colloquially known as sperm whale-vomit, whose scent is said to help with fainting; or civet, a substance from the anal gland of Viverridae, a cat-like species, which was given to children “for the grimness of the stomach,” as Suzanne quotes. “Both, by the way, are contained in Chanel N° 5,” she adds with a wink. “Today, they are produced synthetically, though.” This development caused the treasure trove of medicines to become considerably smaller over the years. “Fortunately,” the museum guide thinks. After all, who would want to take skullcap powder when acetylsalicylic acid is much more effective? Or who would treat their teeth with radium to make them shine, when we know about the side effects of the radioactive substance?

Having active substances extracted from animals from all over the world on stock was considered good manners among pharmacists.

Some medicines are simply no longer available. The legendary horn of the unicorn, for example. In the apothecary’s cabinet from the Schongau monastery, it is found in two jars—the only ones that do not contain what the labelling suggests. However, Suzanne does everything she can to keep the magic alive a little longer. In the midst of the wooden Hof-Apotheke Bamberg furniture that also dates from the Baroque she presents, yes, a horn of a real unicorn—really! It measures around 2.20 metres and can hardly be lifted. How could an animal have trotted around with such a weight on its head? Finally, the museum guide relents: “It’s not a horn at all. It is a tooth: the tusk of a narwhale. Ground mammoth teeth were also sold as unicorn powder. This has little to do with magic. For Suzanne, however, it is at least as spectacular.



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