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Albarello drug jar used for Balsam of the Philosophers, Italy, 1701-1800

The drug once stored in this jar has its origins in alchemy. Called the ‘Balsam of Wisdom or Philosophers’, it was expensive and highly sought after. Used as a protector from plague, the balsam contained a secret oil of philosophers. Also known as ‘Oil of Brick’, ‘Oil of Philosophers’ was obtained by subjecting a brick soaked in oil – usually olive oil – to distillation at high temperatures. Apart from plague, the resulting balsam could be used for pretty much anything, including fevers, nosebleeds, gout, stones in the bladder, wounds, aches, pains and paralysis.

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    Glossary: drug jar

    A (usually earthenware) container designed to hold apothecaries' ointments and dry drugs.

    Glossary: plague

    An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.

    Glossary: pharmacy

    The preparation and medicinal dispensing of drugs.

    Glossary: paralysis

    The loss of function in one or more muscle groups. It causes loss of mobility and feeling.

    Glossary: stone

    A hard solid made of undissolved minerals and found in the kidneys or bladder.

    Glossary: alchemy

    A form of medieval chemistry that incorporated aspects of philosophy. It was concerned with transforming metal, particularly into gold, and potentially creating an elixir to prolong life.

    Glossary: gout

    A disease with painful inflammation of the joints caused by deposits of uric acid salts. It results in acute arthritis and chronic destruction of the joints.

    Glossary: balsam

    An aromatic substance which is secreted from certain plants. It is used in some botanical medicines.

    Glossary: fever

    A rise in body temperature above normal. Fever usually occurs as a natural response to infection.