Gothic and Whimsy, the Pharmacy Museum of Sibiu

Gothic and whimsy, once named At the Black Bear, the Pharmacy Museum of Sibiu is a wondrous place tucked behind a bowed wooden door sheltered by the Small Square’s vaulted loggias.

Sibiu, once European Capital of Culture, is home to several museums and art galleries such as the Brukenthal National Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum, or the ASTRA Museum (like the Dimitre Gusti National Village Museum of Bucharest) which showcase the city’s cultural heritage and artistic traditions. The Pharmacy Museum, Muzeul de istorie a Farmaciei (translated to Pharmaceutical History Museum) is part of the Brukenthal National Museum, home to some of the most fascinating artifacts from a time when the lines between medicine and alchemy were still obscured.

Where exactly is is the Pharmacy Museum in the Small Square?

I liked the vaulted loggia on the ground floor and the high roofs with the “seeing eyes”, the mark of Sibiu:

eyes on Sibiu roofs, Small Square
The eyes on Sibiu roofs, Small Square at Christmas time

The building at No 26 Small Square where the Pharmacy Museum is located was part of the second fortification wall of Sibiu, the one of stone, raised after the Mongol Attack of the gruesome Mongol invasion of 1241. Although the medieval construction is only a memory now, a portion of a wall still stands. The proud building we see today dates from the 16th century where the third pharmacy in the history of Sibiu, At the Black Bear, La Ursul Negru, was located.

Sibiu Small Square, no 25, No 26, No 27
Pharmacy Museum Sibiu, No 26 Small Square

Not many know, but the semi-cylindrical cellars found at the back of the Pharmacy museum are part of the second defense wall of the town. A (narrow)corridor and a room on the ground floor are semi-cylindrical vaulted, with walls so thick, more than the width of a man, proof of the tenacity of Cibin’s inhabitants (how Sibiu was initially named, before it became Hermannstadt, then Sibiu). Transylvanian Saxons would have raised the new fortress out of the cinders they were left with after the Mongol attack.

Below: the vaulted archways and rounded wooden door of the Pharmacy Museum Sibiu:

The ground floor windows of the Museum pf Pharmacy have traditional carpentry and are framed by four archways on stone pillars at ground level.

Inside the enthralling Museum of Pharmacy, Sibiu

Once inside the museum I felt like I have time traveled, the walls dressed in wooden shelves and hundreds of bottles of all sizes and colors, the floor plan like a maze, with walls so thick like those of a dungeon.
Although comprising of many rooms and narrow corridors, the museum of pharmacy has three main areas:

  • the oficina (Latin for workshop, where the customers were allowed to glimpse on the preparation of their script…)
  • the crucible room, or the laboratory, where the magic happened, some unusual and intriguing tools can be seen here
  • the homeopathic vault where (al)chemical artifacts are stored, as well centuries-old pharmaceutical books

On entering the Pharmacy Museum the first room is the OFICINA:

On entering the Pharmacy Museum of Sibiu I enjoyed the warmth of the wood used in furniture, shelving, ceilings, and even medicinal containers. It was matched only by the joviality of the museum staff.

The furniture we see today is the one found in the 1902 pharmacy of Sibiu named At the Black Eagle (Die Apotheke Zum Schwarzen Adler). It was designed in such a way as to impress the customer with its dimensions and ornaments. For the same reason some jars are oversized and created out of glass, to showcase their contents.

Pharmacy Museum Sibiu door from the oficina to laboratory
Pharmacy Museum Sibiu stepping from the front room, oficina, into the laboratory

The crucible room or the LABORATORY, the second room

Tucked behind a narrow passage with walls that would make any medieval stone mason proud, the crucible room was the secret space where the measuring, the grinding, the chopping, the melting, and distilling took place so healing potions and poultices could be concocted by the apothecary rector and his apprentice, sworn under the utmost secrecy.

The richness and diversity of the pharmaceutical tools found here portrays the complexity of the processes involved in drug preparation, as well as the evolution of the technique involved, matching the progress of the pharmaceutical science.

Discover: scales, mortars made of cast iron, bronze or marble, crashing or spraying machines, suppositories making devices, percolators for tinctures extracted from medicinal plants, ceramic or metal receptacles, melting pots and pans, measuring tin cups, sieves, ladles, filters, laboratory glass-wear…. and a distiller from the Biertan pharmacy, the first Transylvanian rural apothecary, documented in 1810:

The homeopathic VAULT, the third room

looking from the homeopathic vault into laboratory pharmacy museum Sibiu
Looking from the homeopathic vault into laboratory

Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of therapeutic thinking, worked in Sibiu between 1777-1779 when he researched the local tradition of herbalism. He was the physician of Baron Samuel von Brukenthal, Governor of Transylvania.

There are some juicy stories revolving around Hahnemann’s findings in the colossal library of Brukenthal, mainly about some coins and a certain book that, apparently, caught Hahnemann’s eye but went against Brukenthal’s catholic principles.

homeopathic cabinet with 1000 bottles Pharmacy Museum Sibiu
homeopathic cabinet with 1000 bottles Pharmacy Museum Sibiu

The following year, while Samuel Hahnemann was translating William Cullen’s Lectures on the Materia medica he noticed that the symptoms produced by quinine on a healthy body were similar to those of the disordered that quinine was used to cure. This observation led him to assert the theory that “likes are cured by likes,” similia similibus curantur; i.e., diseases are cured (or should be treated) by those drugs that produce in healthy persons symptoms similar to the diseases.

It marks the beginning of homeopathy.

A Short History of Pharmacy and Medical Care in Sibiu

As early as 1292 a hospital, most exactly a hospice, opens its doors in Sibiu, near a Monastery of the Monks of the Holy Spirit situate close to (where else for that era!) but the Evangelical Church (Lutheran Cathedral) in Huet Square. The hospice functions today, on Hospice Street (we will go there too, so follow my blog).

“For those who are adorned with religion use physicians as servants of God, knowing that He himself gave medical knowledge to men, just as He himself assigned both herbs and other things to grow on the earth.”

Origen of Alexandria, 2nd cent. Christian scholar, ascetic, theologian

Good a hospice was open in Sibiu, for soon the Black Death was ravaging Europe’s and it didn’t forgave Transylvania either, in 1348, although almost no written records were left. When confronted with the plague for the first time those who were in the first lines of defense had no other choice but to stretch whatever knowledge they had from previous epidemics, symptoms and treatment-wise. Few were those who recognized that they were clueless, until medical literature centered on the Black Death finally emerged (written by medical practitioners, healers, lay people, even town councils).

But with regards to the Black Death the people’s desperation could not be contained either by priests or by healers. In 1377 the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) implemented the world’s first-ever quarantine.

Before the first pharmacy opened its doors in the fortress of Sibiu, the city doctor, Master Jacob, cured the sick with medicines brought at the speed of the horse all the way from Vienna, Austria.

crest The Black Eagle first pharmacy Romania 1494-1949

In 1494 a pharmacy opens inside the fortress of Sibiu, in the Big Square (we will visit soon), a Stadt Apotheke, The Black Eagle (La Vulturul Negru) one of the first of its kind in Europe. This was its crest.

The first receipt dates from the year 1494: the pharmacist, Johannes, receives from the city of Sibiu the wage of 0,50 Florins, while the apothecary rector, Martinus Flaschner (1495-1507*), received 10 Florins.

Ana-Maria Păpureanu, Brukenthal National Museum

The pharmacists were rewarded by the City of Sibiu with 10-20 gold coins, Gulden, after they administered the pharmacy on their own account, over a prescribed amount of time, and then handed it over to the city with an intact inventory.

16 cent house Small Square Sibiu.jpg
1597 bronze mortar pistil Pharmacy Museum Sibiu

Yet the life of a pharmacist was not an easy one. They had to abide by the rules set by the Medical University of Vienna, Austria. They had to import some of the medicine they needed from places as far as Budapest or Vienna. While the selling price was fixed for the produce sold by all the guilds, the pharmacists had to work out their asking price – until an official tax was formulated in the 17th century.

During the bout of plague that attacked Braşov in 1531 it is said that the city magistrate asked the doctor from Sibiu for a remedy to fight the plague. Dr Pauschner replied that the best method of prophylaxis is to run far away. Despite the efforts, by 1554 even most of the official magistrates were dead from the plague and the surroundings of Sibiu were almost completely depopulated.

In 1568, the pharmacy functioned in the Small Square of Sibiu:

Yet medical care was not easily accessible for those who lived outside the gates of Sibiu, mostly the Romanian villagers.

Since 1600 it was on this exact spot that the pharmacy At the Black Bear, Zum Schwarzen Bären, opened.

Pharmacy Museum Sibiu, "Memento Mori", "Hodie mihi cras tibi" inscribed on a 1615 wooden cabinet
A 400 years old closet where the toxic substances were kept. It has the following inscriptions:
“Memento Mori” (Remember You Must Die) ~ “Hodie mihi cras tibi” (My turn today, yours tomorrow) ~ Better to bathe in thorns and thistles than to speak in false tongues.

Another apothecary in Sibiu was named At the Angel, La Inger.

Below: iron medical flask XVII cent. and an Ophthalmological surgical kit XIX cent.:

The closet of Dr Andreas Teutsch (below), who became mayor and Count, thanks to whom the use of torture and burning at the stake were seized in Transylvania during the 18th century and earlier than in the countries of Western Europe.

Notice above, behind the Austrian pharmaceutical scale, how thick the walls are, part of them the original stone fortification of the second defense wall of Sibiu raised during the XIV century:

A Hospice, an Apothecary, a Pharmacy, a Chemist’s Shop after Nationalization, the Pharmacy of Sibiu was opened almost continuously (it suspended its activity temporarily between *1507-1524 due to an economical crisis) since the 13th century until 1960 when it closed down. In 1972 it reopened as a Pharmacy Museum.

Thank you for joining me 🙂 Very soon we’ll visit another unforgettable spotlight in Sibiu! Follow my blog and never miss an adventure.

Dreamland folklore myth legends Transylvania by Patricia Furstenberg
Enjoy DREAMLAND, folklore, myth, and legends of Transylvania by Patricia Furstenberg

14 Replies to “Gothic and Whimsy, the Pharmacy Museum of Sibiu”

  1. Time travel, indeed. Some of the utensils look like ancient instruments of torture 🙂 , but before I dub them firmly, let’s see the pictures from the promised article about the hospice. I have a feeling that my sense of wonder will be tingled again. 🙂

  2. A great pleasure, Roberta. We enjoyed the Pharmacy Museum so much and the staff working there is super friendly and knowledgeable. It was a pleasure to be there.

  3. There’s a museum in Paterson, NJ, that has a section with old pharmaceuticals. As a health advocate, I love looking at remedies from yesteryear. (I also collect old health books, some are dated over 100 years old, but the majority are from the 1970s). In the United States you can also find old pharmaceutical jars in antique shops. There’s always so much to explore. Great blog!

  4. Lovely seeing you here, Maryanne.
    It isn’t often that old pharmaceuticals are prevented in a museum. I haven’t seen any here, in South Africa. But a market for glassware, yes there is.
    I am particularly fond of herbal remedies. They are so clever and helpful, so good of you to collect the science. ☘️
    Thank you, and for sharing news of a similar museum in NJ.

  5. Such an interesting post! Thank you so much Patricia for opening the doors of the Sibiu Pharmacy Museum and the history and relevant facts you shared about it. Definitely a place worth visiting!

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