Restoration of the oldest Pharmacy in Malta
On Thrusday 4th Febuary 2010 it was a memorable day in the Medical History of Malta. The old pharmacy in Santo Spirito Hospital was restored to its original glory on the initiative of Mr. Michael Bonnici who also furnished it with his own personal stock of a number of chemicals and a unique set of dispensing equipment used in the last 90 years for the dispensing of prescriptions.
This act has brought the memorabilia of the ‘Art of Dispensing’ which otherwise would have been forgotten. The advent of patent drugs totally diminished the old dispensing techniques of self prepared preparations meticulously dispensed by pharmacists from various natural products. Unfortunately most of these natural items have been destroyed. On the other hand, luckily enough some have been saved as dormant stock or considered leftovers by scrupulous owners who opted to conserve as museum pieces.
In the absence of patent drugs doctors prescribed numerous prescriptions from their well learned knowledge of the availability of chemicals produced in those days and imported by local agents or by pharmacists themselves.
These prescriptions were supported by the early British Pharmacopeias as well as the British Pharmaceutical Codex.
In addition, various names of medical practitioners of the 20th century came back to light. We can now boast to have a well preserved old pharmacy situated in the most appropriate place- the National Archives - wherein its mission statement clearly states “….to preserve the collective memory of the Maltese nation through the protection and accessibility of all”.
History of Santo Spirito Hospital
The former Santo Spirito Hospital in Rabat ceased to function in early sixties and after a long period of neglect, the government decided to house in it the National Archives.
Act of Parliament No. V of 2005 established the regulation of the National Archives and made provisions for the appointment of the National Archivist and for other dispositions ancillary thereto.
Incidentally the original pharmacy of the Santo Spirito Hospital remained intact though deprived of the jars and silver cutlery which used to equip it.
Action has been taken to preserve and rehabilitate its furniture in its former space within the building now housing the National Archives.
In mid-14th Century the place where Santo Spirito Hospital now stands was an annex to a priory with a chapel for the benefit and worship of surrounding neighbours. Later it was used as a small hospital with the name of St.Francis Hospital and catered for the people of Malta who in 1347 numbered around 10,000 inhabitants. It was run on an income derived from some urban and rural rents.
In the year 1433 it was being administered by the University and in addition to the admittance of sick persons, it also housed orphaned or unwanted children.
On the arrival of the Knights of St.John their first step was to re-name the hospital Santo Spirito and put it in line with other hospitals around Europe run by the religious order established by Guy de Montpelier. In 1574 the Apostolic Nunzio Mons. Pietro Duzina gave strict orders for the better administration of this hospital especially on the aspect of hygiene.
In the year 1624, the French Grandmaster Antoine de Paule (1623-1636) issued a decree in which he specified regulations similar to those found in other hospitals run by the Order.
Up to 1961-3 this hospital was still in use but was closed down until in 1989 it housed the National Archives.
The Origin of Santo Spirito Pharmacy
By 1580 at the latest Santo Spirito had its own resident apothecary (‘speziale’ or ‘aromatorio’) 1 and his own pharmacy at the hospital. The Maltese aromatorio mastru Geronimo Callus, the father of Doctor Joseph alias Mattew, appear to have been employed at Santo Spirito between 1518 and 1520. Antoni Zammit was another pharmacist employed by the hospital. The first known resident hospital pharmacist was Antoni Bisci who kept his post till his death in 1580.
In the year 1624 the French Grandmaster Antoinede de Paule (1623-1636) issued a decree 2 (bando) in which he specified the various functions to those who were learned to administer aromatic herbs and other medicinal (poisonous) items.
The Grandmaster officially nominated Prothomedico 3 il Magnifico Nicolo Cilia according to the Ordinance of the Chancellery of the Sacred Order for the islands of Malta and Gozo.
In addition he ordered that nobody could mix medicines without the permission of the Prothomedico or his substitute and in accordance with the prescribed doses. Mixtures to include the day and the year of dispensing.4
1 “aromatico” (Italian) pharmacist
2 “speziale” (Italian) pharmacist. This word has been corrupted in the Maltese language as ‘spizjar’3 Cfr.BNM Libr.2 Stromatum Melitensium Liber XIV, 1759,f.601-06: Bando e Comandamento da parte del Gran Maestro Antonio di Paula.
4 See also J.Amodio, corpus Insscriptoium Latinarum nell’ospedale medievale di Santo Ssoirito, Rabat in tony Cortis et al. (ed) Melitensium amor, 2002:172)
The need to have in Malta a comprehensive medical history museum equipped with all the instruments used by medical practitioners, in medical laboratories as well as those used by pharmacists in their dispensing profession, has been repeatedly called for in the press and during medical and pharmaceutical conferences
The idea to reconstruct the oldest and original state of the Santo Spirito pharmacy is precisely to satisfy part of the call for this Medical History.
To counteract the possibility that chemicals and related equipment used in the early days of pharmaceutical practice be forgotten as well as to enhance accessibility to a greater number of people, the Museum will serve as a source of knowledge, or site of research into an aspect of Maltese medical history and a memorial to public health.
In line with the national aim of preservation and conservation as much as possible of the various old crafts and trades, this place is housing a unique evidence of the “Art of Dispensing” which was meticulously used in the self preparation of medicines for the benefits of the patients when patent drugs were non existent or still in their infancy.
This permanent exhibition is being established as a national memorial to those Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians (formerly named Assistant Apothecaries or Compounders) who contributed sterling pharmaceutical service to the well being of the people of Malta and Gozo.
Contents on Pharmacy Practice
The Santo Spirito restored pharmacy is equipped with various chemicals both in powder and liquid form. Some of these chemicals are still in their original containers bearing the name of the manufacturer and country of origin. Others have been transferred from original stocks to specific containers perhaps through sharing, for better conservation or for a better adaptation to storage space.
Most of the use of these chemicals is supported by prescriptions as detailed in the collection of prescription registers which date back to 1929 up to the present date.
The prescriptions found in the registers refer to various types of medicines prescribed and eventually dispensed mainly in at least six different forms namely: Mixtures, Cachets, Wrapped in individual doses, Eye and skin Ointments, Liniments and Eye and Ear Drops.
The dispensing of these preparations were prepared under the responsibility of the managing pharmacist manually and normally dispensed to patients in suitable containers purposely imported for the different type of each item.
All research work on pharmacy practice can be carried out from one common source housed under the same roof.
Exhibits of Pharmacy Equipment
This pharmacy includes pharmaceutical equipment used for the preparation of different types of medicine necessary for dispensing purposes together with other sundry equipment for specific use by patients.
Of particular interest are the sets of weights in the avoirdupois, imperial and metric system. This unique collection of weights starts with the decigrams (dcg) and the centigrams (ctg) which in those days were used on specialised pharmacy scales enclosed in a compartment.
The different forms of containers both for liquids and solid compounds are made up of coloured glass to distinguish, through handling and eye catching the poisons and non- poisonous, material that require dark storage, corrosive and non corrosive items etc.
Other equipment includes ceramic/terracotta jars, pill machine, cachets machine, suppository moulds, small metal pans, spirit lamps and other items which were part and parcel of the preparations of medicines.
Other equipment sold from pharmacies includes: glass baby feeding bottles, vaginal douche, urinary bottles and enameled patellas for bed ridden patients, enema douche, dilators, bronchitis kettles, ring pessaries, glass syringes and other items.
This whole exhibition is witness to the practice of pharmacy in days gone. Exhibits are being preserved in terms of the mission statement of the National Archives ‘to preserve the collective memory of the Maltese nation through the protection and accessibility of all..’
Author: Michael Bonnici
THIS OLD PHARMACY WHICH FORMED PART OF THE SANTO SPIRITO HOSPITAL IN RABAT (ORIGIN CIRCA 1580) HAS BEEN RESTORED AND REHABILITATED ON THE INITIATIVE AND THE VOLUNTARY WORK OF MR. MICHAEL BONNICI – PHARMACY TECHNICIAN.
THANKS TO THE ENCOURAGEMENT, ADVICE AND DIRECTION OF MR. CHARLES FARRUGIA – THE NATIONAL ARCHIVIST OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES HOUSED IN THE EX HOSPITAL OF SANTO SPIRITO, A DREAM HAS COME TO REALITY.
THE EXTENSIVE WORK WHICH WAS CARRIED OUT DURING 2009 IS BEING DEDICATED IN RECOGNITION OF ALL THE PHARMACISTS AND PHARMACY TECHNICIANS WHO DURING THE YEARS GONE BY DEDICATED THEIR PROFESSION TO THE WELLBEING OF THEIR PATIENTS THROUGH THEIR METICULOUS PROFESSIONAL DISPENSING OF SELF PREPARED PREPARATIONS.
A PARTICULAR MENTION GOES TO MY FATHER MR. DANTE BONNICI Ph.C., (1906 – 2006) FROM WHOM I HAVE LEARNED THE ART OF DISPENSING AND MY LIFE LONG PROFESSION.
MOST OF THE ITEMS ON DISPLAY WERE PURCHASED FROM MY FATHER IN 1980 AND IN RETURN I AM EXHIBITING AND DEPOSITING THEM AS A SYMBOL OF NATIONAL PRIDE TO THE PHARMACEUTICAL PROFESSION AND THE PEOPLE OF MALTA AND GOZO.
I AM ALSO MOST GRATEFUL TO MY WIFE BEATRICE AND CHILDREN ELAINE, BERTRAND AND RAPHAEL L. WHO WHOLEHEARTEDLY SUPPORTED MY INITIATIVE TO RENOUNCE PART OF THEIR INHERITANCE AND BEQUEATHING IT IN OUR MEMORY.
Souvenir for the occasion
For this occasion a special label has been printed for half wine bottles as a souvenir bringing to memory lane one of the most used products for cough mixtures originally called “Vinum Ipecacuhanae’ (BPC 1934) which later stocks changed name to “Tinctura Ipecachuane”.