Aqua vitae in the “officina” – pharmacy history overview

With the help of images from our database, we visit the pharmacies of old times:  we admire the ornate furnishings, special chemist’s vessels, and the science of medicine-makers. Our exhibition will explore aqua vitae, water burners, sugar (believed to be) healing, soda water, powerful religious and mythological influences, pharmacies dedicated to various symbolic animals.

kigyo_gyogyszertar_recept_.jpgThe word “patika” (apothecary) itself is of Latin and Greek origins and means a place of storage. The Hungarian term “gyógyszertár” (pharmacy) is a result of the neology (a language reform). The beginnings of European pharmaceutics date back to 1241, when the Holy-Roman Emperor Frederick II issued a decree laying down the framework for the pharmacist practice and the word apothecary was used for the first time. 


The practice of curing patients with medicines, and the related activities of experts and dispensers, have their roots in ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic cultures. In Hungary, the profession of apothecary began with monks as healers and monastic herb gardens nearly a millennium ago. In the 14th century there was a pharmacy in Pozsony, in the following century in Bártfa, Nagyszeben and then in Körmöcbánya. As of the 17th century, there were civil chemist's shops next to the ones for the aristocracy, for example in Kőszeg, the pharmacy of János Kristóf Herpius, which was operated for over 300 years under the name of its later owner, Sámuel Küttel, and was converted into a museum in 1983. In the period following the Ottoman occupation, there were few pharmacies in the country, mainly in the large towns, and monks, such as the Hospitaller Order and the Jesuits, were involved in the production of medicines.

The first Baroque pharmacies in the capital

After the expulsion of the Ottomans, the first pharmacy in Buda was the Arany Egyszarvú (Golden Unicorn), opened in 1687 by the apothecary Ferenc Ignác Bősinger. The shop in Buda Castle has been called the Arany Sas (Golden Eagle) since 1750. The historic building of the pharmacy in Tárnok Street, which has been moved several times, has been used as an exhibition space for the history of pharmacy since 1974 and is part of the Semmelweis Museum of Medical History.


Almost at the same time as in Buda, the first civil pharmacy in Pest, the Szentháromság (Holy Trinity) Pharmacy, was opened in 1688 on the other side of the Danube in a corner building at the junction of Kígyó Street and Váci Street, under the direction of the German pharmacist Herold Heinrich Siegfried. The pharmacy moved several times around the old Városház Square, and in the meantime, a still-standing tenement building was built in 1872 on the site of the original single-storey building. As you can see from the examples above, pharmacies were usually located in the central part of the town, in a prominent position, close to the market and churches.

Pharmacy interiors

fekete_sas_gyogyszertar_591362.jpgThe rooms of a pharmacy were already established in the Renaissance and consisted of an officina (office), an area for serving customers, usually with finely elaborated furniture; a laboratory, where medicines were prepared; a materials chamber or storeroom, and a drug-drying attic or a cellar. A typical piece of apothecary furniture is the cupboard with shelves or drawers, many of which are still on display in pharmacy exhibitions today. In the office, you can find the tare table as well, where the work processes were carried out and where the most important tools, such as scales and mortars, were kept. In the 16th century, it became customary to decorate the office with taxidermied animals or animal parts, mainly crocodiles, snakeskins, tortoiseshells and ostrich eggs.

An apothecary as a polymath

nadcukor_desztillalas_350806.jpgIn addition to the production and storage of medicines, the apothecary's laboratory was also the scene of chemical and alchemical experiments, such as the production of distillates and liquors. The latter is related to aqua vitae, the 'water of life', an elixir considered medicinal in the Middle Ages. The magic potion of eternal youth and life was in fact an alcoholic distillate, which many languages have preserved in the names of their typical drinks, such as eau de vie, whisky, vodka or a now forgotten Hungarian word, ákovita, or pálinka. Distillation, or water burning, was practised not only by professional distillers but also by pharmacists and doctors in the 17th century, who used it to make medicinal water from herbs. 

karlsbadi_so_782165.jpgThe apothecary had to be skilled in herbs and spices, and created sweets in the modern sense. In the 14th and 15th centuries, sugar and sugar-containing preparations (such as marzipan) were considered medicines and sold them in apothecaries' shops, and the preservative properties of honey and sugar were exploited in the production of medicines as well. As of the 18th and 19th centuries, pharmacists' skills included the analysis and artificial production of mineral waters, for example as a substitute for medicinal waters recommended for drinking (such as Karlsbad salt). The production of soda water, which became extremely popular in the 19th century, was also carried out in pharmacies, while many of today's soft drink brands, such as Schweppes and Coca Cola, started their business with 'medicines'. The early 20th century saw the emergence of pharmaceutical companies. With the rise of the pharmaceutical industry, research and manufacturing activities were reorganised from pharmacy laboratories to institutes and factories.

Snakes, unicorns, pomegranates - the symbols

gyogyszertari_kozpont_arucimke_747407.jpgThe symbol of the apothecary's trade, a chalice with a snake twined around its stem, became widespread in the 19th century. Its origins can be found in Greek mythology: Asclepius, the goddess of healing, is usually depicted holding a rod with a snake twined around it. Hygieia, the goddess of health, appears with a snake-feeding chalice. It is curious that animals popular in heraldry often appear in the names of pharmacies - as we have already seen in the case of the pharmacies mentioned above. All of these have symbolic meanings: many apothecaries are dedicated to lions, eagles and unicorns, which are popularly believed to evoke power, authority and admiration. Names often include Christian terms, the names of saints, and the Hospitaller named all their pharmacies after their own symbol, the pomegranate. Mythological or historical figures, the name of the place where the pharmacy is located or the name of its owner also occur.



Translated by Zita Aknai


Czagány István: Magyarország barokk patikái. In: Commun. Hist. Artis. Med. Suppl. 9-10, 1977. Magyar Gyógyszerészettörténeti Társaság

Iványi Béla: "Vízégetés" Nyugat-Magyarországon a XVI-XVII. században. In: Orvostörténeti Közlemények, 1956. 4. sz. 5-33. p. Hungaricana Könyvtár

Kapronczay Károly - Kapronczay Katalin (összeáll.): Fejezetek a magyar gyógyszerészet történetéből. Budapest. Johan Béla Alapítvány - Magyar Tudománytörténeti és Egészségtudományi Intézet, 2016. Magyar Gyógyszerészettörténeti Társaság 

Simon Flóra: Több mint háromszáz éve nyitottak patikát a pesti Belvárosban. Pest-Buda

Tótfalusi István: Magyar etimológiai szótár. Budapest. Arcanum Adatbázis, 2001.


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