Bristol-Myers Squibb European Apothecary -- Squibb Ancient Pharmacy Catalogue

Squibb Ancient Pharmacy Catalogue

The Squibb Ancient Pharmacy catalogue is a pocket-sized brown book with its title embossed in gold lettering. It is 190 pages long and generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs of its most important artifacts. The Bristol-Myers Squibb European Apothecary however, is most definitely not ancient. Indeed, most of the artifacts can be solidly placed in the 18th century. Nonetheless the collection includes numerous pieces from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, as well as a few from the 19th century.

The catalogue was written by George Urdang (1882-1960), a refugee from Nazi Germany who arrived in the United States in May 1939.  Urdang was a pharmacist by trade as well as an historian of pharmacy who had been the editor of the German Pharmazeutische Zeitung (pharmaceutical newspaper). Urdang also published four articles about the collection published in the pharmaceutical journal American Druggist.

F. W. Nitardy (1885-1971), E.R. Squibb Company’s chemical and pharmaceutical laboratories vice president assisted Urdang with the manuscript of the catalogue and the four articles. Nitardy’s main task, however, was retooling Urdang’s German prose “to make it conform to what is used here, without changing the character of the article or your meaning as I interpret it.”

Nitardy, a longtime employee of the E. R. Squibb Company, had a hand in most phases of the collection’s tenure at the Squibb headquarters in New York City. He was in charge of negotiations with executives for the collection’s exhibition at the 1933 A Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago where the collection, and he negotiated the apothecary’s deposit with the Smithsonian Institution. He was also responsible for bidding at auction for several apothecary jars that were added to the original collection.

The arrangement of the descriptive catalog is straight forward. It is divided into sections with short introductions based on types of objects such as mortars, containers, balances, books, and paintings, and within this context by country and date of origin. The foreward was written by Theodore Weicker, chairman of the board of E.R. Squibb & Sons who acquired the collection from Jo Mayer. 

In a letter to Nitardy, dated July 23, 1939, Urdang outlined his qualifications for undertaking the job of writing the catalog. “I know the ancient pharmacy from Germany and the collector and former proprietor, Dr. J. Mayer, was a friend of mine, but I never have asserted to be ‘quite familiar’ with the collection when it existed in Germany.”  He went on to explain, “My capacities enabling me to prepare a catalogue of your ancient pharmacy are based on my historical knowledge on the development of pharmacy and the pharmaceutical utensils…I could give the geographical and chronological identification of the ceramics only approximately…An exact identification, regarding the study of ceramics as an art in itself demands the cooperation of a special expert for ceramics.” In the introduction of the catalogue, Urdang credits the sources which he found most valuable including the articles written by Fritz Ferchl in 1930, articles written by pharmacist and collector Walter Heinrici in Die Deutsche Apotheke, and Pharmazeutische Altertumskunde by pharmacist Josef A. Haefliger of Basel Switzerland.

The information within the catalogue was never questioned until about 1954.  In correspondence with Urdang, George Griffenhagen, curator of the Smithsonian’s medical collections, mentions “various corrections” to the Squibb Ancient Pharmacy catalogue, based on information supplied by Thomas M. Beggs, director of the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts.   

In 1983 prominent pharmaceutical historians Wolfgang-Hagen Hein and D. A. Whittop Koning, both authors of numerous books on the history of pharmaceutical artifacts, visited the museum and examined the mortars and the glass and ceramic containers.  After assessing the collection they both wrote letters detailing discrepancies they found. Many of the inconsistencies had to do with the misattribution of country of origin. For instance Squibb number 1991.0664.0378 is described by Urdang as a French mortar, but according to Koning it is German. Squibb number 1991.0664.0437, which Urdang attributed to Northern Italy, was in Koning’s estimation a fake.