I was taking a nice walking tour in Zagreb when the guide asked if we knew where the oldest pharmacy in the world was located. Very confidently I said Tallinn, since that’s what I was told when visiting Estonia, ironaically (or maybe not) during a free walking your in Tallinn. He smiled, clearly expecting the answer. No, he said, many people think that. The oldest pharmacy in the world is in Dubrovnik, here in Croatia. There was pride in his voice and posture. And we can’t really expect locals to be imparcial, can we?
He said that Tallinn’s pharmacy is indeed old and while it’s still running today, it closed its doors for a while. Dubrovnik’s Old Pharmacy, part of the Franciscan Monastery, was founded in 1317 and it NEVER closed its doors.
Funny enough, while trying to fact-checking (yes, with Google) here’s what I came across – apparently, we have three European cities competing for the position – Dubrovnik, in Croatia, Tallinn in Estonia and finally Florence in Italy – I smiled to myself.
So, here’s what I found:
- Raeapteek Pharmacy, or Town Hall pharmacy, in Tallinn, Estonia – its first records of existence date from 1422. Contrary to what my Zagreb guide said, it has always been in business in that same location until today. While the VisitTallin website claims this is indeed the oldest running pharmacy in the world, other sources are quick to contest it – afterall, Dubrovnik’s pharmacy as been running for 700 years, and Raeapteek is 100 years younger 🙂
- The Old Pharmacy in Franciscan Monastery, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, was founded in 1317 as an in-house pharmacy for Franciscan friars and only later (year unknown) was introduced to the public servicing the whole Town’s population and even beyond the town’s walls. According Dubronivk’s Tourism , Dubrovnik’s pharmacy is only the third oldest in the world and Time Out refers to it only as one of the oldest in Europe. I guess they seemed a bit more humble than my guide in Zagreb!
- Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, Italy, is the first result I get in Google if I simply search for “oldest pharmacy in the world”. Aparently I missed this pearl when I was visiting Florence – perhaps because it’s known as a luxury apothecary, that seems to have branched out to multiple locations in the world (luxury locations). Forbes actually states in this article’s title that this is the oldest pharmacy, but when reading the article, the message is clearly changed to “one of the oldest”. But when exactly was it founded? According to Wikipedia it all goes back to 1221, when monks started experimenting with garden plants to create herbal concoctions, but it only became officially a pharmacy in 1612, when it open its doors to a public, officially becoming retail. (check my Florence posts here)
So, what did I learn? Well, History is a tricky business as well as definitions. What defines a pharmacy, especially back then? From my perspective, a modern one , it is indeed an establishment that is open to the public, which ironically excludes Santa Maria Novella from winning first place as the oldest pharmacy in the world. Meanwhile, we don’t know for certain when Dubrovnik’s Franciscan pharmacy did open to the public, and, simultaneously, we can’t be certain of when Tallinn’s Town Hall pharmacy opened either. So I guess… we can’t really claim either one is the oldest.
Of course, I’m no Historian… so don’t take these as facts. It’s simply my interpretation of stuff I found online. I also think it’s interesting how all of these pharmacies are somehow in Europe… which again makes me believe this is all based on a single-minded perspective of a western world. What about Asia, Africa? Huge continents – Asia is particularly known for very advanced medicinal practices techniques from the early ages. But now, I’m diverting…
This article is about Dubrovnik’s Old Pharmacy. Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside the actual pharmacy, but inside the Monastery there is a small museum showcasing how the pharmacy looked like centuries ago, as well as some instruments and containers used back then. The courtyard is also beautiful, so I definitely recommend a visit… even if you can’t say for sure you’ve been in the oldest pharmacy in the world 🙂
As I wrote in a previous post about the City Walls of Drubrovnik, the city was never attacked until the Yugoslavian war of 1991. Dubrovnik was a target and you can see scars all over the city, including in the monatery, where the holes of the missiles are well marked.
Let me know in the comments… where is indeed the oldes pharmacy in the world?