A treasure trove of Philadelphia’s medical heritage

Philadelphia is renowned as a city of museums, with a huge range of institutions exploring the history of specific disciplines, groups and happenings – such as the Museum of Art, the African-American History Museum, and the Museum of the American Revolution, to name just a few. But did you know that Philadelphia has a museum dedicated entirely to the history of pharmacy?

Appropriately enough, the Marvin Samson Center for the History of Pharmacy is housed at the former Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (now the University of the Sciences), the oldest institution of its kind in the United States. Located just off the University’s main lobby, this vermilion-painted, mirrored space is home to a curated collection of artifacts from all over the world. These artifacts tell the story of pharmacy as an academic discipline and medical practice with a huge cultural impact.

Many of the objects on show relate to the university’s own heritage. A ceramic plate, delicately decorated with a picture of Old City’s Carpenters’ Hall, hearkens back to its beginnings in 1821. That year, apothecaries gathered at Carpenters’ Hall to discuss how they could improve the standards of their profession, by introducing set training and qualifications. The Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science was incorporated just a year later, and set about establishing pharmacy as a modern medical practice in the United States.

A striking portrait of William Procter Jr, who played an incredibly influential role in this process, catches your eye as soon as you enter the collection. Procter graduated from the Philadelphia College in 1837, and later returned to spend 22 years teaching there. Alongside his academic career, Procter helped to establish the American Pharmacists’ Association, wrote and edited the first pharmacy textbook published in the United States, and co-edited, edited or wrote over 550 articles for the United States’ first national pharmacy journal, ‘American Journal of Pharmacy.’ Thanks to his pioneering work, this College alumnus is known as the ‘Father of American Pharmacy’. His 1875 portrait was gifted to the University in 2012 by his great-granddaughter.

Many of the items in the Center’s collection give you a tangible sense of what it was like to study and teach at the Philadelphia College day-to-day. There is a handwritten matriculation ticket for the academic year 1868, the ink so fresh that it looks as though it were filled out yesterday; and photographs of lectures and laboratories at the College, taken in the late 1920s.

One wall is taken up by a beautifully illustrated German-language poster of an opium poppy, printed in Berlin, Germany, and used to teach students about the plant’s medicinal properties nearly 100 years ago.

Other items relate to the practice of pharmacy as a profession, in the recent and distant past. Exquisitely painted ceramic drug jars from England, Spain, Italy and France show how apothecaries displayed their wares in the 18th century. A cabinet of stamped glass bottles take you back to the late 1800s, when early Philadelphia pharmaceutical companies packaged and sold imaginatively monikered medicines like ‘Gallagher’s Magical Hair Oil’ in this way.

Some of the collection’s artifacts illustrate the massive cultural impact of pharmacy. Visiting a pharmacist or druggist is close to a universal experience – practically every person has to take medicine at one time or another – and over time, the practice of making and prescribing medicine has taken on real cultural meaning.

For example, the collection includes several prints from ‘A History of Medicine in Pictures’, a series commissioned by a pharmaceutical firm in the 1950s.

These colorful, detailed images portray scenes from medical history – such as Hippocrates diagnosing an Ancient Greek child, or sixth century BCE surgeon Susruta performing surgery in India. For decades, these prints were on display in waiting rooms, pharmacies, and homes across the United States and Canada, becoming part and parcel of the experience of visiting a pharmacy.

A cultural phenomenon which could be argued to affect pharmacy more than any other branch of medicine is marketing. The Center’s collection is home to a whole range of objects and materials used by pharmaceutical manufacturers to promote and sell medicines, both directly to pharmacists and to the public. From 200 pestles and mortars (traditional symbols of the apothecary’s trade) in every imaginable style and material, to paperweights, toys and pen holders, pharmaceutical companies have long used gift items to persuade pharmacists to stock their products.

Some examples stand out from the crowd – one drug company reproduced ancient Indian and Mexican sculptures that they claimed portrayed conditions like depression and anxiety, and used them to sell drugs to treat these illnesses.

Other companies marketed direct to the public, as with an 1887 British ad from The Illustrated London News for Beecham’s Pills, which would apparently cure all imaginable ‘Bilious and Nervous Disorders’. Beecham’s, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, continues to sell medicines in the United Kingdom today.

A theme that runs through the Center’s collection from beginning to end is pharmacy’s global nature - medicine is a universal human need, and is represented in every country.

One wall of the museum is dedicated to a huge collection of sculptures from all over the world, portraying pharmacists at their work in many artistic styles, media, and cultural settings.

A unique item shows the strength of the Philadelphia College’s – and now the University of the Sciences’ – relationships with other medical practitioners all over the world.

It is a hand-painted presentation scroll dating from 1984, decorated with pink lotus blossoms symbolic of purity, beauty and enlightenment.

A gift to the Philadelphia College by colleagues at the Nanjing College of Pharmacy in China, it underlines the global impact of Philadelphia’s medical profession, and the rich heritage preserved at the Marvin Samson Center.







Article written by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association.