Natural Science Museum in Milan

Civico Museo di Storia Naturale of Milan contains, like all natural science museums, numerous materials linked to the history of pharmacy – from minerals, plants, animal and fossil elements with apothecary uses, to Wunderkammerns and the scientific tools and curiosity that accelerated the knowledge of the natural world. The museum in Milan, that we visited in September 2022, contains a new exhibition of minerals, some of which were also used in the making of medicines and still are today. There is also the old but scientifically very interesting display of fossils and natural specimens that were sometimes in the attention of pharmacists throughout history, including, for example, dioramas with narwals (the horns of which were though to belong to unicorns and posses great healing powers).

45th International Congress for the History of Pharmacy

In September 7-10 we attended the works of the 45th International Congress for the History of Pharmacy organized in Milan by the International Society for the History of Pharmacy. The 2022 edition was entitled ”Health, Beauty and Well-being in the History of Pharmaceutical Art”, but the presentations and posters covered a wide array of sub-topics. Dr. Ana-Maria Gruia has presented the PHARMATRANS project and its results so far, has taken part in other presentations, has viewed and documented the scientific posters and has become acquainted with representatives of significant pharmacy-related institutions in Europe, especially from the German-speaking areas. The most promising collaboration is that with members of a Polish research team led by Dr. Jakub Węglorz from the Historical Institute of Wrocław. Based on the preliminary discussions, we will also send materia medica samples to Poland for analysis, at the Department of Pharmacognosy and Herbal Medicines of the Wroclaw Medical University. These investigations might provide complementary data due to the use of a different analysis technique, focusing on non-volatile compounds, and a database with raw pharmaceutical substances.

The pharmacy collection of the Science Museum in Milan

In September 2022 we have visited the history of pharmacy collection of the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. It is one of the smallest collection of this impressive museum of science and technology, exhibited for the first time in 1957. It was meant to evoke the atmosphere of the old monastic pharmacies (as one of the museum buildings is a former Olivetan monastery). At the same time, the display was intended to point to the connection between art, science, and technology. The furniture is not from an old pharmacy, but from a religious context, and the stuffed crocodiles dated to the 19th century, a time when it was no longer fashionable to decorated pharmacies with exotic animals. Most of the artifacts in this collection were obtained from the antiquities market, thus their original contexts of use remain unknown, but the small display is very beautiful and evocative. In 2016 all items were conserved/restored. We thank Mrs. Simona Casonato and her colleagues for the special guided tour.

Paper analysis

The analysis of the paper components of the Baroque medicine chest in our collection includes determining the nature of the paper, its pH, and the quantity of glue employed. Already performed investigations have attested the presence of colored fibres, thus demonstrating that this is historical rag paper produced by hand. This type was made of imperfectly bleached textile materials, a technique in use until the 18th century, thus confirming the dating of the chest. The analysis of paper pH has not led to relevant results, as some samples were basic and other acidic, but this may be explained by the interaction of the paper covers with the medical preparations and the specific preservation conditions. Dr. Magó Andrea Beatrix has recently checked the type of paper glue. This test reveals the excessive, normal, weak or absent quantity of glue in the paper based on the absorption of a micro water drop during a set interval. The absorption times differed considerably, pointing again to the possible changes in the paper covers due to the interaction with the contents of the containers, or the possible use of different types of paper when such covers were replaced (the change in content required the change of cover, as it required new inscriptions).

Inscriptions under UV light

Some of the inscriptions on artifacts in our collection have faded and are only partially visible with the naked eye, especially those written in ink on absorbent surfaces such as wood or cardboard. In order to read such inscriptions we have inspected them under UV light, with special eye glasses. We were thus able to see a couple of more letters, which sometimes makes the difference between deciphering a text through completion or recording it as illegible. Our colleague Maria Pakucs fought with the Latin, German and Hungarian inscriptions on the eighteenth-century medicine chest and on the covers of several pharmaceutical ledgers in the collection.

Microscopic investigations

The investigations are ongoing through our Pharmatrans project. Dr. Magó Andrea Beatrix, chemistry researcher at the Restoration and Investigations Department of the National Museum of Transylvanian History, has performed microscopic analyses under transmitted, reflected, and polarized light on several textile, paper, thread and materia medica samples from the 18th century medicine chest in the collection of the museum. Though microscopy does not always clarify the structure of apothecary preparations (especially powders), it does confirm in some cases that the preserved contents match the historical inscriptions (the structure of the mustard seeds is very clear, for example). Dr. Magó has also discovered that the paper employed as cover for the containers was handmade, our of vegetal fibres (was made out of rags (old clothes were recycled, shredded and made into a paste, leaving colored microfibres in the structure of the paper). The investigations have also stressed the structure of the thread used for securing the paper covers (made of twisted fibers). The investigations were performed using an OLYMPUS CX33 microscope and a polarizing NIKON-OPTIPHOT2-POL microscope (working condition with one Nicol and cross Nicol).

XRF analyses

The series of investigations planned through our project continues with a number of non-invasive XRF (X-ray fluorescence) tests performed with a portable EDXRF spectometer Elva X Prospector3 MAX with energy dispersive SDD detector in collaboration with SC UNION SRL Cluj-Napoca. The tests have led to the identification of the metal alloys used for several components of the 18th-century apothecary chest in the History of Pharmacy Collection. We have thus discovered that the key and rivets of the chest were made of an alloy rich in iron, the other metal components are made of copper and tin, while the screw caps of the glass containers are made of lead (toxic, but soft and easy to process). We are happy with the results and have started processing them for a specialized study targeting this valuable apothecary chest.

Specialized investigations

In the beginning of June 2022, project team members and collaborators have met to decide upon the types of investigations that are required and that can lead to the best results in the research of the apothecary containers that still preserve some content in our collection. The analyses will mainly focus on the 18th-century medicine chest and its components, but will also include some of the more than 100 other containers and materia medica samples, certainly the mummy fragments and a bottle for Theriaca. The team has taken the following decisions: a set of investigations will be performed by Dr. Magó Andrea Beatrix at the Conservation and Restoration Laboratory of the National Museum of Transylvanian History (material determinations for textile fibers, paper and materia medica); XRF and SEM-EDX investigations of anorganic materials (glass, metal) and materia medica will be contracted to the National Institute of Research and Development for Izotopic and Molecular Technologies in Cluj-Napoca, in collaboration with the Faculty of Chemistry; and 10 samples of organic materia medica (complex 18th century preparations) will be sent to the Analytical Chemistry Center of the University in Pisa for chromatography and mass spectometry.

We thank our collaborators, Dr. Márta Guttmann, Dr. Magó Andrea Beatrix, and Drd. Grapini Sabin-Pompei.

Conservation analysis

Dr. Márta Guttmann and Ioana Cova, the conservation specialists involved in our project, have recently assessed the 18th-century apothecary chest that will provide most of our materia medica samples for analysis. On that occasion they have established the appropriate methods to proceed without damaging the containers and their covers and which sample to send to chemical analysis laboratories in Cluj and which in Pisa. Our specialists have also managed to open compartments previously stuck, thus revealing the absence of several paper envelopes for materia medica visible in a 1918 published photograph of the artifact (r. Orient Gyula, Az Erdélyi Nemzeti Múzeum keretében felállított gyógyszerészeti múzeum, în Dolgozatok az Erdélyi Nemzeti Múzeum érem- és régiségtárából. IX, 1918, p. 260, fig. 37).

A surprising apothecary cabinet

The History of Pharmacy Collection in Cluj includes a wide range of cultural goods, from plant and mineral remains to old drugs, containers, books, recipes and ledgers, and ending with large pieces of furniture. The largest apothecary cabinet in the collection has been preserved in situ from the old Hintz Pharmacy. Due to its size and multiple interventions in time, one faces considerable difficulties in measuring, researching, cleaning and restoring the piece. The initial surface analysis has revealed the existence of an older painted decoration, possibly from the Baroque period, in tones of blue and pink. Based on a possible analogy from the Fekete Szerecseny Patikaháza in Kőszeg (Hungary), the drawers might have been painted with vegetal garlands that once surrounded inscriptions. Though the restoration of this surprising apothecary cabinet will only be completed after the end of the present project, we can hardly wait for the complete reconstruction of its original look.