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Peter Gorski

Andrzej Radomski

„Pharmacy as a cultural phenomenon”

In our report we would like to present a new perspective of writing about

pharmacy and its history. Let us define it as culture expertness. The specified
understanding of culture is lies on its basis. Then, we would like to present what
kind of profits can be brought to the pharmaceutical writing, thanks to the
concept of cultural expertness and ingenuity of pharmaceutical phenomena. Our
reflections on this topic are the result of the cooperation of a science historian
and a cultural expert (on the one hand) and a historian of pharmacy (on the other

For some time there has been a tendency for describing different human
practices as cultural phenomena. This tendency has been also presented in the
area of science and in the related fields. As part of this approach we can
emphasize that all human actions are controlled by apposite cultural rules. All
products of human behaviour (both individual and group ones) carry the stigma
of specified culture. At long last, all the institutions are marked by the culture
present at particular time and place. Some even claim that categories akin to
“history”, “time” or “place” also have their own cultural character. Therefore, let
us try to consider whether we can present (write, interpret) the history of
pharmacy and people linked to it in the look of cultural expertness. And if we
can do this, the question is “how”.

Its basis (which is not difficult to work out) is appropriate understanding

of the category of “culture”. It is particularly essential as there are at least
hundreds of various types of definitions. Still we can understand culture as
values and the regulations of taking action. These are characteristic for a
particular group at particular time and place. In addition, the culture itself
provides us with particular vision of the world and of the human beings. It is an
imaginary vision. That is why we advocate calling it “imaginarium”. Such
“imaginaria/imaginaries”, providing us with the ontological assumptions,
motivate people to take up specific actions. The culture understood in this way
determines all human accomplishments in the entire area of life1.

The history of science and generally the human competence can be

depicted in many different ways. In the sixties of the twentieth century a
scientific revolution in the field of science expertness took place. Thanks to the
accomplishment of Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laktos, Toulmin, Hanson, Foucault, and
the representatives of the “Edinburgh school” we can look at the mechanism of
formation and development of competence/knowledge (including the scientific
knowledge) differently. In the meantime, the history of pharmacy stays outside
all these changes. Because of the registering and systematizing model of its
presentation it can be presented in the following points: 1) the competence in
pharmacy is created by the process of unravelling the biological, physical and
chemical phenomena, 2) the opportunities to produce new medicines and the
technology of their production stem from the discoveries of objective
phenomena, 3) facts are discovered by means of empiricism, 4) the development
of pharmacy is first of all the achievements of scientists, pharmacists and
doctors, 5) the expansion of this discipline is a continuous progress; it is
understood as an emancipation from superstitions, myths and alchemy (on the
one hand), 6) facts taken from lives of diverse representatives of this profession
who contributed to the advance of pharmacy; therefore scientific,
implementation, and organizational achievements are depicted, 7) hence, the
detailed and systematic registration or inquiries; who and when created,
constructed or organized something; is crucial in this case, 8) the history of
1 It is a definition of culture which allude to the proposal of Jerzy Kmita presented in works such as: “O
kulturze symbolicznej”, Warsaw, 1982 or “Kultura i poznanie”, Warsaw, 1985
pharmacy is frequently described as a catalogue of errors and mistakes (on the
one hand ) and achievements (on the other hand) which led to the phase it
reached till now. And this is a typical example of this way of thinking, which is
taken from an academic book on the history of pharmacy. Its author
characterizes pharmacy at the beginning of the book. He says that “we can
understand the term “pharmacy” as the study of medicines […] the history of
pharmacy includes the events, the phenomena and the processes in the past
which are connected, directly or indirectly, with detecting, preparing and
studying the medicines and also handing them over to ordinary usage. The
object of the history of pharmacy is both getting to know the ways that lead to
the present-day medicines and the history of the pharmacists’ profession in
different social, political and legislative conditions […] while considering the
past we cannot omit the contribution of particular scientists who had a say in the
development of this scientific branch.”2

The base to our viewpoint in writing about the history of the pharmacy is
the option of cultural expertness, as we mentioned before. Let us remind that its
basis lies in understanding the culture defined as a set of dominating imaginaria
in specified time and place. These imaginaria control the actions of people in all
the social practices and experiences. Individuals and groups acting directly,
realize particular values (with the help of specified and invariable rules) which
result from the imaginaria mentioned above.

If we agree to comprehend culture in this way, we should also agree to

take the consequences arising. If we suppose that culture controls the actions of
people in all the areas of life, we should also suppose that it determines the
nature of, for example science. Therefore, scientists also make their actions as a
part of given cultural imaginaria. Their accounts are neutral. Therefore, their

2 Robert Rembieliński, Historia farmacji, PZWL, Warsaw, 1963, p. 9

descriptions are neither realistic nor real. They are not even universal (with the
grievances against universal significance).

The historians of pharmacy are also the members of specific communities.

They identify themselves with these societies. They share the same values and
visions of reality together. Therefore, briefly speaking they share the same
culture. For that reason, their historical works are created with the cultural view
– with the thought of community to which they belong. Therefore, the first and
crucial question to which a historian of pharmacy should find an answer is:
„Why do I want to go in for the history of pharmacy?” Let us not delude
ourselves. Nowadays, what we present in our works is not a realistic vision of
the matter; as it used to be in the past. The works produced by the historians of
pharmacy (as we mentioned before) depend on cultural rules which are
respected by them. If these rules are changed, then the works and views that
show, for example the lives of pharmacists and the functioning of pharmacies,
are changed. So, one cannot compare all the views in the sight of their reality or
truthfulness. All of them seem to be equally important.

One can postulate that the history of pharmacy is done only in order to
maintain the group identity of all pharmacists. All this is because the cohesion of
a particular group may be maintained in many different ways. On way is to point
to common past, tradition and the togetherness of common experiences.
However, one should remember that the history of one particular group of
professionals is a history that is imagined, it is a story told in a different way.

We suggest writing works whose crucial categories would be: “culture”,

“imaginarium”, “values”, “imagined community”, “texts”, and “experience”.
Therefore, let us try present how these pharmaceutical “stories” would look like
in this completely different perspective.
A traditional historian of pharmacy claimed that history is/may be the
only one (yes, there is only one truth). His objective was to reconstruct the
history/record of all the pharmacists. In order to complete this task he leafed
through lots of, so called, source materials. He leafed through them to get out
the information needed and to verify diverse facts (or, alternatively processes)
about the history of pharmacy. These “pharmaceutical” facts were treated there
almost like some kind of ”natural” objects which came to existence and were
waiting to be discovered or to brought back human memory.

In the writing perspective which we respect, one should accept that a

historian of pharmacy has to deal with cultural phenomena. We assume that
each human action (so, also actions taken by pharmacists, chemists etc.) is
controlled by particular rules and values. All these rules and values arise from
the specific supremacy of cultural “imaginaria”. Therefore, each historian of
pharmacy cannot get to know any pharmaceutical facts which, although pure,
are not semantically interpreted. It is because such a historian is involved in
facts, phenomena and processes which have already been shaped with the view
of a particular cultural context.

We may attribute many different properties to the culture itself. Actually,

this category can be introduced in order to stress the fact that all phenomena do
not exist in an objective and natural sense. The reality (at least it is perceived in
this way) do not exist intrinsically, surely this cannot happen if we consider the
human reality. The veracity is created by the culture itself (mainly by its
imaginaria), it is structuralized and hierarchized. The same is with what we call
“pharmacy”. These phenomena do not, as we can also assume, exist naturally.
They are created. They are sort of reality which is called for in the view of a
specified cultural imaginarium. The culture itself creates a field which is
equipped in specified characteristics and values. Then, it is defined as
“pharmacy”. Therefore, one should notice that there should be a kind of “created
reality” (but not discovered reality), through which he world of pharmacy can be
constituted. Only then the history of this pharmaceutical world can be

An altered individual issue is what should be the theme of the history of

this pharmaceutical world. Should it be the culture/s (and its components) which
create/s pharmacy/ies? Or maybe should these be some regularities and
tendencies which can be observed in pharmaceutical worlds? Or should these be
people who are connected with pharmacy? An unequivocal answer cannot be
present while considering this matter. The whole lot depends on the theoretical
perspective in the sight of which we carry on with our reflections on history; it
this particular case our reflections on pharmacy.

Almost everyone who is occupied with the history of pharmacy place

human individuals, who acted on the field of pharmacy, in the centre of their
interests. Therefore, one describes eminent discoverers and scientists, chemists,
pharmacists and activists who were, directly or indirectly, connected with this
area of human activity. Furthermore, one depicts the actions of pharmacists
which go beyond the pure professional interest. So, different forms and
indications of activities, which they took part in, are presented. Therefore we
can have: political, social, municipal, religious, and sport activities…and many
A factual description of the forms of activity mentioned above is a
dominant one in this presentation. Therefore, the stories of the chemists and
pharmaceutical class is followed, sometimes it is tracked in a very scrupulous
Meanwhile, taking into consideration our perspective (of cultural
expertness) this factual recording of the activity of people who were connected
with pharmacy is only a point of departure for the pharmaceutical writing. For
us, more interesting is the answer to the question: “What determines the shape
and character of the chemists’ and pharmacists’ activities? What determines
their identity? What causes the fact that they are active in the field of their
professions (what makes them want to do it and what causes that it is important
for them)? To answer these questions we should go beyond the pure factual
recording of particular events/phenomena and turn to culture.

Subsequently, we assume that culture is the factor which determines the

identity of pharmacists and chemists. It creates a view of an “ideal” pharmacist
in a specified time and place. The culture calls for appropriate values which
pharmacists should base on. It also calls for appropriate rules of actions that
pharmacists and chemists should use and be aware of. In other words, the rules
of culture create peculiar “fictional community”. This scenario is an individual
lodestar which makes it easier to move about the world of pharmacists; both the
professional and private world. Not only does it comprise of pure and
verbalized system of values and the rules of behaviour but also of so called
“silent knowledge” (according to Kuhn) which controls the actions of
pharmacists and which is acquired/gained through practical apprenticing in this

Equally often the historians of pharmacy are occupied with the

institutional aspect of pharmaceutical practice in their works. They present the
history and functioning of different institutions like pharmacies, corporations,
municipal organizations and pharmaceutical factories. They also affix legislative
acts which regulated the rules of operating the institutions mentioned above. It
can be easily observed that, as we can assume, the introduction of the legislative
regulations is generally speaking enough to explain the distinctive character of
such institutions.

In our presentation we call for looking into all pharmaceutical institutions

as cultural phenomena. A pharmacy – its shape and character may be perceived
as a cultural product created at a particular time and place. Strictly speaking, a
pharmacy (and other institutions) may be described as texts. It means that the
face/nature/character of a pharmacy is constituted through the semantic premises
of different language terms. The semantic assumptions are constituted by
cultural imaginaria. Hence, first an appropriate “idea” of institution has to be
shaped/formed. In this place it would be an idea of pharmacy. This inspiration is
to be the basis for the existence of a pharmacy with a substantial character. Only
then apposite legislative acts; acts that regulate the life of the institution, may
come into existence. Therefore, it is not like that the law brings pharmacies or
similar institutions into life. Therefore, we should depart from the cultural
judgments as indispensable (as it is supposed) conditions for the pharmacies to
come into being.

Another separate issue that can be considered in the field of pharmacy is

experiencing of the world by people acting in the pharmaceutical practice. As
we stated before, the traditional historiographers presented the lives of people
who were entangled in pharmacy. These historiographers recorded some
indications/signs of occupational and social activity of the pharmacists. We
decided to introduce some aspects of cultural judgments (especially the term
“imaginarium”) which we believe control the actions of all the people who are
in some way connected to pharmacy. However, we can try to expand the interest
of a historian of pharmacy. The crucial term which we want to emphasize and
point out to those writing about pharmacy is “cultural experience”.

In the specialist literature (philosophical, methodological and scientific)

there are many conceptions of “experience”. It is one of the crucial
epistemological categories, but not only. However, we have to become aware of
the fact that this category is hardly ever used in the field of pharmacy and its
history. Hence, we still would like to present its utility.

The idea of experience is frequently connected with the concept of

empiricism, which is with the conviction that our judgments of the world come
from our minds and consciousness which in other words mean that our
conclusions come from the experience (in one of the nuances of this term). We
would like to invoke the pragmatic concept of experience, in which it is assumed
that the experience is created as a result of different activities/actions. Hence, in
the field of historian’s of pharmacy interests some tribulations may occur. The
tribulations such as: the perceiving of the world and humans, the attitude to
one’s profession, the perceiving of the pharmaceutical practice and the
understanding of one’s own identity are especially distinctive for people who
work in the field of pharmacy. Another interesting strand may be an issue on
how the pharmacists create (during their ordinary duties) the pharmaceutical
reality which later on becomes the constituent/component/element of their
cultural beliefs. The category of experience is therefore very important and we
may even say that it is crucial in the sight of practicing (meaning experiencing)
the pharmaceutical acts through which e create the reality which we call the
pharmacy. This is a part of culture (in the understanding determined here). In
fact, it is mainly a group of personal acts and specified cultural judgements
connected with them, which in the case of individuals may be dissimilar. We the
scientists make the matter easier when we say that we have to do with some kind
of culture controlling the pharmaceutical practice. Actually, it is a concept of
“idealisation”. From the whole of actions/operations that were taken up by
pharmacists we can build today a general image and that is what we exactly call
pharmacy. However, it cannot be said that the pharmaceutical practice was
controlled by consistent cultural judgements at particular time and place. That is
why the category of experience (with an attribute “cultural”) seems to be so
crucial. With the help of this category we can (at least potentially) reach the
authentic convictions of people who are engaged in this profession – and to their
own worlds.

The conception presented by us is the one of transmitting the

pharmaceutical practice and the writing about its history. We believe that this
idea breaks off with the popular image of this side of human activity. Of course,
pharmacy and pharmacists can be still presented in a factual manner. Pharmacy
can be still put forward as a kind of a process that leads to today’s scientific and
progressive stadium. However, the pharmaceutical practice can be
conceptualized in a slightly different way. And it is not about the fact that our
proposal can bring a more realistic picture of what the pharmaceutics or
chemists perform (as a matter of fact, we are not at all using the notion of the
“truth”). The historical writing about pharmacy is used to accomplish dissimilar
goals than we thought; purposes different from the pure cognitive ones. It
contributes to the crystallization of specific outlook judgements concerning the
world or humans. In the convictions that we respect, we acknowledge that the
man itself is the creator/initiator of reality/authenticity. Indeed, he uses a certain
cultural accumulated experience from which he could not possibly flee. Yet,
what he creates is not an act of discovering the character/nature of the matter
itself. Therefore, the results of the research (mainly the scientific ones) are
always cancelled. There is no single method of the research or of the writing.
The imagery of one discipline can be fundamentally diverse; it all depends on
the cultural convictions of particular persons. So, instead of asking which
images are the closest to the truth we may pose questions like: “where do they
come from, why were they of this character and course, and also who or what
did they served?” The writing perspective presented here and called “the
perspective of cultural expertness” may be a help for you to answer these and
many other questions. You may judge its virtues and vices by yourselves. And
with this request we would like to end our presentation.