by Theo Schall


There’s a clear affinity between bioethics and the history of science. The history of science is (like all history) a story of changing values. Bioethics, the collective examination of ethical issues in health and research, benefits from reflection on past triumphs and missteps.
In this series of posts, I highlight ethical puzzles (and droll odds and ends) to be found in museums and archives of scientific, technological, and clinical history.


exteriorUp a narrow, twisting street lined with ancient red stone facades, you come across a black outline of a mortar and pestle hung by an unassuming wood door. This is the entrance to the Pharmazie Historisches Museum (usually translated as “Pharmacy Museum”), one of the world’s foremost museums preserving the history of Western alchemy, chemistry, and pharmacology.







The museum is located in a historic home, the Haus zum Sessel, once a printshop that employed Hans Holbein the Younger as an illustrator. Other frequent guests included humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, physician/alchemist Paracelsus, and artist Albrecht Dürer. Today, it houses a large collection of historical pharmaceutical objects and an herbal remedy shop called the Herbarium.








Technological innovation was vital to medicine even before its scientific era. Glassmakers’ products were integral to alchemy, where they were used for distillation, examination, and storage. The need to ship wet and dry pharmaceutical remedies provided an incentive for potters to adapt enameling techniques so as to ensure that ingredients stayed pristine.







Bioethics Highlight:


Pharmacists’ first legislated professional ethical code was the American Pharmacy Code of Ethics, adopted in 1852 alongside the National Pharmacopoeia, which standardized the compounding of drugs.  The Code emphasized the duties to one another held by apothecaries, druggists, and physicians, but made no mention of duties to patients.


More than a hundred and fifty years and many revisions later, the Code of Ethics of the American Pharmacist’s Association now begins by defining the patient-pharmacist relationship as a covenant and “a gift of trust received from society.”





The debate over whether medicine should be a luxury good is not new.


Pictured here is the Baroque Habsburg royal court pharmacy of Innsbruck from 1755. Dozens of precious, hand-painted pieces of Delftware pottery line dark wooden shelves. The room is romantically lit by a pair of crystal chandeliers.







Among the museum’s bigger draws is a reproduction alchemist’s workshop. The domains of alchemy, apothecary, chemistry, and pharmacy historically overlapped, and individual scholars were often passionate about their intersections. While today we tend to think about alchemy as a Medieval delusion over which modern chemistry triumphed, the terms “alchemy” and “chemistry” were used almost interchangeably for hundreds of years. Alchemists may not have discovered the means for transmutation, but they did contribute significantly to the development of modern science by establishing experimental laboratories and creating ordered systems for analyzing materials.








Here, Jesus Christ appears as a pharmacist. It might look a little silly to a modern secular audience, but this was not the only painting of its kind made in the Middle Ages.

It’s also easy to see why the pharmacist might seem connected to the divine: power over life and death, the apparent magic of mixing precious ingredients, even the use of tools of measurement. The scale that Christ holds calls to mind both the tools of the pharmacist and the metaphorical balance of final judgment.

Today’s clinical medicine skirts spirituality, but as the third of Clarke’s laws states, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Chemistry’s introduction to medicine may have heralded a new scientific era, but the more things change…






Scientific pharmaceutical research benefited from advances in study of human anatomy. Then as now, improved understanding of the structures of the body allowed for newer and better medical interventions. Basel is also home to the Anatomy Museum, which houses a collection of preserved tissues used to educate scientists and physicians.










The Pharmazie-Historisches Museum der Universität Basel is located at Totengässlein 3, 4051 Basel, Switzerland.



Previous posts in this series:
Bioethics in History: The National Dental Museum

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Theo Schall

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