The Apothecaries of Old Vilnius: the 16th-17th centuries - Orbis Lituaniae

The Apothecaries of Old Vilnius: the 16th-17th centuries

The beginning of the early modern times in Lithuania (16th–17th centuries) saw expanding public provision of medical services. There emerged in urban areas of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vilnius in the first place, previously unheard of institutions – pharmacies. Until then medicines were prepared by privately hired medics working at the courts. Ordinary people resorted to herbs and various preparations prescribed and provided to them by unqualified herbalists or barber surgeons.

One pharmacist per 4,000 people

In the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th centuries the population in Vilnius was estimated at about 20 000 – 30 000. From 1522 until the beginning of the 17th century there were two groups of pharmacists working in the city: about 24 pharmacists based in Vilnius, and those arriving in Vilnius when accompanying the rulers of Lithuania and the pharmacists of the nobility. All in all, the number of pharmacists could have reached 35. The citizens could expect the services of two (at the beginning of the century) to four of five Vilnius pharmacists at a time. Together with the visiting ones, who also provided services to the residents of Vilnius, their number would come up to six or seven. It was not a lot. At the same time in Krakow, for example, there were about 100 pharmacists working for a longer or shorter period of time, and in Kaunas at the beginning of the 17th century the services were provided by three of them at a time. Who were the first people to start a pharmaceutical activity in Vilnius, and where in the city were the first pharmacies?

The medieval pharmacist’s profile

The first mention of Vilnius pharmacists in the historical sources goes back to 1522. It is complicated to accurately determine the persons working at the time. At the beginning of the 16th century the surnames of the Vilnius pharmacists were not yet fully formed. Like the other citizens of the time, they were usually called by their given names, e.g. Mistrik, Maciej, or Jakub. It was only from 1545 that both the given name and the surname of a pharmacist were more often registered in the sources.

The famous Vilnius pharmacist of the 16th century Jonas Zaleskis had a nickname Pigulka (a pill), characterizing his craft, inherited, most probably, from his predecessors.

According to their social background, almost all the pharmacists were city dwellers. Even though three pharmacists added famatus or honestus to their names, it showed their elite status among citizens but not their belonging to the nobility. The ethnic origin of the pharmacists is not always clear. In the group of pharmacists, like in that of goldsmiths, foreigners prevailed. There were locals (Lithuanians and Ruthenians), for example, Jakub, Sebastijan, Jablka, some had come from Poland (Grigori Pasternak, Walman, Gambina and Mrzyglod). Germans made up a solid group (Conrad, Hanus or Kopp) while Korneli Winhold was Duch.

A prestigious craft

Representatives of this profession were held in high regard by the contemporaries, which is evidenced by their images in public discourse, their getting into the ruling elite of the city and to the group of the richest citizens. Three members of the group (Jakub, Jablka and Mrzyglod) belonged to the city magistrate, they held the posts of annual assessors; Mrzyglod was also appointed keeper of the advocature. Pharmacists were active in the urban environment, they socialized with the city elite, with the rich citizens, some of them became clients of influential noblemen (the Radziwiłł, for example). There was a direct link between welfare and the craft.

Each pharmacist who worked in Vilnius in the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries accumulated considerable wealth, larger than that of an average citizen.

More than half of them owned a house in Vilnius, some of which were solid brick houses in the centre of the city worth up to 6 000 złoty. Among pharmacists there were several who owned large land holdings. Thus, the profession was quite profitable, and it is not clear why there was not much continuity of the profession among the group of pharmacists. There were only two cases of a dynasty. The sons of Jablka and Kendzerski were trained as pharmacists. The sons of others would rather choose the profession of goldsmith or, in the best case, would join the ranks of nobility.

The pharmacy – a medieval trade centre

There is not much data on the activities of a pharmacist in the written sources of the time. The Vilnius and Krakow pharmacists did not form a guild unlike their counterparts in Poznan and Lvov. The most famous master pharmacists (Pigulka, Fink) had apprentices to assist them in their pharmacies. They would compound medicines according to physicians’ prescriptions and deliver them to the clients. Only on completion of apprenticeship, which usually took about six years, were they entitled to start their own practice. The Vilnius pharmacists of the time compounded medicines and various preparations and sold them. Pharmaceuticals made only part of the goods; spices, toiletries, confectionary goods, various drinks were also sold in pharmacies.

The pharmacy-shop-pub combination predominant up to the 18th century was a profitable business.

Like everywhere in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, medicines in Vilnius were mainly made from herbaceous plants, some necessary materials were brought from other countries. This is evidenced in the extant inventory (1577) of Simon Duszinski pharmacy in the city of Brest and two books of prescriptions. The Radziwiłł fund (Poland) has two collections of manuscript prescriptions of the 17th century containing 700 prescriptions.

The first pharmacies: an assortment of strange utensils and exotic signboards

The well-established proposition of historiography about the royal pharmacy in Vilnius having been moved over from Poland in 1506 is not credible. The first indubitable fact related to the oldest pharmacy is a site in Vilnius bought by Sigismund I the Old between 1506 and 1509 with the intention to build a pharmacy in Vilnius. In the period of 1510 to 1521 operating in the city was a pharmacy founded by the Vilnius voivode Mikołaj Radziwiłł. Both oldest pharmacies were situated in the centre of the city, in the area of the Lower Castle and Vilnius street. In 1531 there were already three pharmacies operating in Vilnius. It is noteworthy that in his letter of 1549 Sigismund II Augustus  wrote to his brother-in-law Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red about not one, but several pharmacies operating in the city:

“Due to the state of her health, her ladyship your mother must live in Vilnius as in Vilnius, protect oh Lord against any diseases, you can find both pharmacies and physicians.”

Later, the number of pharmacies increased. Almost all of them were located in Castle – the Great streets, one of them was opened in German street. A similar situation could be seen in Krakow. Judging from the scarce iconographic materials or descriptions, the pharmacies of the time would have scales, a lot of flasks, bottles, casks, boxes and other containers and instruments – from 500 to 870 units of various utensils and appliances. Pharmacies were decorated with signboards depicting black-skinned people, elephants and other exotica. In the middle of the 16th century the price for a fairly large, well-equipped pharmacy could reach as much as 700 złoty. Thus, acquiring a pharmacy or starting one was an expensive business.

Literature: R. Ragauskienė, Vaistininkai XVI a. Vilniuje, Vilniaus istorijos metraštis, 2007, t.1, p. 29-54.

Raimonda Ragauskienė