Early pharmaceutical tools

Before the industrial production of medicines, all syrups, ointments, pills, and salves were made by hand- often by a trained apothecary or pharmacist. Over the years, specialized tools were developed to assist these specialists in making a variety of medicines. Mortars and pestles were used to grind, pulverize, and mix herbs and powdered medicines. They were made of a wide variety of materials including stone, iron, marble, brass, bronze, glass, or even wood. Mortars in the 17th century were highly decorated. Their use in pharmacies was so central that they became a symbol of the trade. In the mid-1800s, “drug mills” replaced the labor-intensive mortar and pestle to grind or mix large quantities of medicine. Some pharmacists may have used domestic spice or coffee grinders for smaller jobs as well.

brass mortar and pestle with pill tile
brass mortar and pestle with pill tile

Pile tiles, like the one seen behind the mortar and pestle in the photograph, were often made of wedgewood or crockery. They were well glazed to provide a smooth and impermeable surface. Some of these tiles were marked for measurement, others were decorated with professional seals or advertisements. They could be used in conjunction with a small spatula to mix, roll, or divide small quantities of pills.

Pills, or lozenges, have been made by hand (with or without pill tiles) for centuries. For example, the ancient Greeks on the island of Lemnos mixed herbs and other medicines with packed earth to make pills. They might have made these pills with their hands or used specialized tools. Another common and simple technique for ingesting powdered medicine was to dissolve or suspend it in water. However, this was unpopular because many solutions had a bad taste.

“Pill machines” were invented in Germany around 1750 to assist pharmacists in making several standardized lozenges at a time. Some machines made as many as 50 pills, but the more popular machines made 18 to 24. At first they were made of wood, but later parts of the machine were made out of brass. After the pill “mass” was created by mixing the medicine with other non-active ingredients, it would be rolled out to an even thickness using the flat board and a rolling pin. The pharmacist could then use the grooved parts of the machine to mold the pills into rounded shapes on both sides. When the mass dried, the pills could be broken along the lines of the grooves, creating smooth, identical forms. Some pharmacists also used a “pill finisher” to coat the lozenges with gelatin, varnish, or fine talc powder. Pill machines were made and used in the United States until about 1930.

wood and brass pill machine
wood and brass pill machine

These pharmaceutical tools are part of the upcoming exhibit entitled “Tools of the Trade.” In this exhibit, visitors will learn more about the evolution of medical instruments from denistry, optometry, gynecology, otolaryngology, and other fields. It opens in Winter 2009!

3 thoughts on “Early pharmaceutical tools

  1. Very informative post with great pictures. Who knows, if the economy keeps going the way it is going, we may be back in the pharmaceutical business and we have the necessary tools.

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