As if the centuries had not passed, the old French Pharmacy, known as La Botica Francesa, in Matanzas, has been preserved to show visitors the simple and beautiful ways of science during the 19th Century. Almost 44 years ago La Botica Francesa became the first pharmaceutical museum of Latin America, with its rooms reminding us of the hardships encountered on the road of research, and the past century's achievements, inviting us to ponder the super technology to come.
The pharmacy, owned by French Ernesto Triolet Lelievre and Cuban Juan Fermín de Figueroa, opened its doors on January 1st 1882 across from the Arms Square (today Parque de la Libertad) in a building constructed for that purpose, with living quarters on the upper floor from where the red tiled roofs of the city could be admired. Its rooms and decoration were made in the French style, from the country where its owners met.
Originally, the idea was to build the pharmacy in the nearby city of Cardenas, as one can see on labels of ancient bottles of conserves, still shining on the marble counters. The decision to change turned out to be a wise one. The pharmacy had 82 successful years in Matanzas, selling a variety of drugs, medicinal plants and cosmetics. Many of those items are the forbearers of drugs saving our lives today. Others are as strange as scorpion oil as a rubbing liniment, ant syrup for the treatment of indigestion or deer's horn as an aphrodisiac.
Thanks to its owners and to Cuban historians such as Julio Ie Riverend and Israel Moliner Rendón, the pharmacy was preserved from one generation to the next, together with all of its goods. And so it has been kept in time, with the content of its jars undamaged.
Visiting the Triolet pharmacy is a journey into nineteenth-century medicine, when work utensils were not at odds with art. Starting with a marble Virgin of the Immaculate Conception Figueroa's favorite saint that has seen the comings and goings of countless clients and visitors inside the store, and ending at the collection of medical equipment, with an electrocardiograph or an oxygen supplier unlike any used today, the tour of the museum generates as much interest as beauty.
The sales room delights with its floor to ceiling shelves built from precious Cuban wood and 22 pillars between the shelves, each made from a single oak tree. The same shelves offer us a collection of French porcelain medicine jars, some of them specially made for Triolet in Sevres, France, and glass containers preserving pills, medicinal roots, orange blossom, eucalyptus or ginger essences that can still be sensed in the air.
On the counter rests the large jars known as "pharmacist eyes" since when the pharmacist was behind them, his eyes were optically expanded due to the distortion produced by the glass and the colored liquid inside.
At the back of the room is the dispensary with all the equipment needed for pharmaceutical work. Mortars of all sizes, tools to make pills by hand, a revolving cabinet to keep the tags later placed on the jars and an indispensable lizard-shaped tool to insert corks and close bottles that were later sealed with the aid of a burner.
The working early 20th Century cash register and telephone are close at hand, seeming to await the pharmacist to approach the bookshelves of valuable volumes in four languages and the 55 volumes registering every prescription.
There are thousands of formulas registered in those books, beginning with the first two made on opening day. The first formula called for three small papers of calomel, jalap and milk sugar, and the second for an ointment of quinine sulfate and glycerin. The cost for the first was 75 cents and the second three Cuban pesos.
All the spaces of the building had a use. Even the cool square patio, different from the typical elongated ones in the city, was used to store white and blue jars with the owners' names.
Crossing the patio, one enters a laboratory that appears more like a magician's chamber with its copper and bronze stills to distill water, alcohol and ketones with the heat from burning wood, and the "freezer" that worked with no power, just ice.
The upper floors tell human stories. Dr. Triolet married Justa, his partner's sister, and after her death made a new marriage with her niece María Dolores Figueroa. María Dolores became the first Cuban woman pharmacist and ran the pharmacy for 40 years after the death of her husband. The pharmacy stayed within the family until it became a museum on May 1st 1964, at the request of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. One of the sons of the first owner, Ernesto Luis Triolet, did not want to leave and worked for fifteen years in the museum. Today, the Botica Francesa is an important centre promoting local culture.
Many objects, all of them beautiful examples of long ago science, survive waiting for our visit to the peculiar pharmacy, where a sleeping clock reminds us of the indispensable presence of science and art through centuries and millenniums