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Report on Visit to see the Treasures of The Pharmacy Museum in Lisbon


For Dr Joao Neto, Director of the Pharmacy Museum in Lisbon, the treasures within mean the world. Taking charge of a group of BHSP members on a tour on 24 May 2024, he set off to provide a fascinating insight into the donation made in 1981, by Dr Salgueiro Basso, of his own private collection to the National Association of Pharmacies (ANF) which is housed today in a lovely building on the Santa Catarina headland. The Museum was formally opened in 1996, to be followed more recently by the opening of a sister-Museum in Porto in 2010 that houses a fully equipped Moorish Pharmacy and the reconstruction of the Estacio Pharmacy, inaugurated in the city in 1924, with the first ever talking-scales – a must-see that drew crowds and crowds for months to down-town Porto until the trickery was unveiled a few months later.


But let's jump back in time, to the 18th & 19th centuries when secret remedies (like the glass-bottled medicinal Água de Inglaterra or the Freedom Fruit Salts or the Elixir of Salomé) or other mysterious powders were “all the thing” for those who could afford them. They were sold in places like the Barbosa Pharmacy, first located in Penafiel but removed from the monastery of the same name in 1834 when the religious orders were closed down in Portugal, then later dismantled piece by piece and set up again in the Pharmacy Museum, in Lisbon. Or the Apothecary of S. Vicente da Fora with its famous mercurial panacea known to provoke salivation, cure fools, and kill roundworms and other unnamed diseases. For the fact is that apothecaries, as they were originally known for many centuries, belonged to the main religious orders. Each convent or the Aviz or Santiago monastic-military orders had its own dispensary, where healing was deemed as much a question of faith as medicine. Hence the lay-out of the apothecary, which looked like a church altar with the shelves being repositories for statues of saints and jars depicting religious scenes in blue (for the Virgin Mary), Green (for Hope and life expectancy) and bright yellow (for the sun that heralds the arrival of a new day even for the sick). Then there was the Pacheco Pereira Pharmacy - founded in 1880 - and dispensing tonics and granulated drugs - the famous wafer cachets of Stanislas Limousin as an example - in lovely Sacavem-made pots or modern glass jars and bottles. Hygiene was becoming the key principle to combat cholera, polio and typhoid, as promoted by the Fabrica a Vapor de Produtos e Farmacêuticos in 1888 or by the Companhia Portuguesa Higiene in 1891, together with the Companhia de Agua do Portugal which started testing the water supplies to stop the spread of these deadly health hazards.


In the 19th century, the green sign for pharmacies or chemist shops had already appeared in many countries with three additional emblematic “pharmakon” characters on the Portuguese one: the palm tree (for the vegetal realm), the chalice (the spiritual state) and the snake (the animal world). The Museum has an enormous wrought iron gate with a simpler version of the sign, known to us all today, the serpent coiled around the chalice. More delicately painted gilded overhead shop signs sway silently, guiding the visitors to the Museum up to the first-floor show rooms.



What is probably less well remembered is that pharmacies, in the 19th century, were important scientific, literary and political gathering places. The Azevedo Apothecary in Lisbon was known to have housed a group of conspirators during the Napoleonic invasions. The Liberal Pharmacy, also in Lisbon, must have held high hopes for the flow of visitors to the place seeking to buy Cambara Breastplates or granulated haemoglobin or Dias Amado anti-syphilitic depuratives or Ideal Lysine - products that we see advertised today on the numerous colourful posters that adorn the walls of the Pharmacy Museum in Lisbon.


From the typical old-fashioned apothecaries, we now move on to more recent so-called laboratories, divided into three or more zones. The chemical laboratory for medicines, with a distiller, a furnace, scales, copper and/or cast-iron pots, tin containers, retorts, mortars. In the next room, embalmed animals provide a clue to the importance of crocodile livers, tigers bones, snake venom and other strange substances used to prepare remedies. The storage room contains wonderfully decorated pots with explicit pictures and human figures covered in bumps and sores and other visible ailments, such as the hunchback or the severed head or the bloated foot, which enable us still to identify today the usage of the various medicinal powders that these receptacles still contained. Plants, dyes, wines and other therapeutic, chemical or galenic products from country hortas or plantations – wonderful household remedies - were stored in a separate room, in drawers that related to all the different parts of the human body, with pictograms for the head, the neck, the thorax, all the way down to the toes.


More amazing still, the Lisbon Pharmacy Museum has the only authentic Chinese pharmacy displayed in the western world, that was in Macau until 1998, with lacquered wood cabinets, arches and panels representing the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), along with exotic birds, deer and flowers. The mannequins of a Chinese doctor and of a pharmacist are busy preparing licensed pills, powders, and ointments to stop the counterfeit street vending of poisonous substances. A lady mannequin – a European visitor? - waits, on a chair, for her potion to be mixed.



For Dr Joao Neto, the treasures of the Pharmacy Museum in Lisbon mean the world. And these treasures, to be found in well-lit displays, span some 5000 years of History, having been acquired worldwide. From black-topped red painted Nagada jars (dated circa 3500-3000 BC), to quartzite and basalt figures and heads (ca. 1500-1300 BC) to a precious rython from ancient Persia and winged turquoise scarabs, a very beautiful sarcophagus from the XXV-XXVI dynasty in Egypt, papyrus records attributed to Ebers and others to the Hammurabi Code of Mesopotamia, to writings pertaining to Hippocrates' doctrine (from 450-350 BC) that speaks of diseases coming from “miasmus and mal-air”, to Celsus' work in the 1st century AD. From the Near and Middle East, the Greek World and the Roman Empire come objects, bottles, and blown-glass unguentaries, as well as relics and sacrificial or cacao-folding vessels from South America and Africa. All of these beautiful albarellos, mortars, perfume bottles, Tibetan Tantra charts, icons and European jars from the Middle Ages or the era of the Portuguese Discoveries have been loving identified somewhere across the globe, collected, bought in auctions or received in donation or begged from nations.

The Treasures of the Pharmacy Museum in Lisbon include the Goa stone, a secret 17th century medicinal object said to be the philosopher's stone; the portable medical kit used by a Portuguese sea-explorer King Carlos on his Cascais-based yacht; the leather case of a buccaneer who introduced potatoes and tobacco from the New World into Europe in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh; some rather barbaric contraptions used to keep women safe when working in factories or fields or to free them from hysteria when sewing machine-pedals were of little avail; a unicorn's horn or narwhal's tooth deemed to be the most precious and powerful antidote to … well, if you wish to know more (and so much more can be learnt from visits to both Museums) the Lisbon Pharmacy Museum is managed and ever-expanded by an inexhaustible, moustached, monarchist Director-cum-guide, a man truly passionate about his lifetime work and generous in sharing his knowledge with visitors.

Dr Neto has always been persistent in trying to get new exhibits. When President Clinton visited Lisbon in 2000, he pressed him to send the museum a medical kit from the Space Station. After this had successfully arrived, he went to the Russians and said “well, I have one from the Americans, it would look bad if I didn’t have a Russian one”. And one duly arrived.


This is also the place where you will also hear about Odette Ferreira (1925-2018) a lady who was instrumental in identifying HIV- AIDS Virus Type 2-related contamination in blood samples, risking her own life to move forward the microbial understanding of diseases and cell pathology; and about why Portuguese ladies started to get recognition in their pharmaceutical workplace.  Don’t miss it.


Ninna Taylor