Mortars & Pestles

The history of the mortar and pestle is closely connected to that of pharmacy. The paired instruments have been used for millennia, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. They are mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest surviving medical document, and even in the Old Testament (Numbers 11:8 and Proverbs 27:22). They have been made of wood, ceramic, bronze, lead, stone and glass a few, just to name.

Throughout recorded history, mortars and pestles have been used for medical preparation. Compounding was an important skill, vital to the practices of pharmacy and medicine. Compounded medications were “made from scratch,” personalized to suit the needs of a patient. A pharmacist would grind appropriate ingredients with a mortar and pestle to create a specialized compound.

In the mid-20th century, the need for the mortar and pestle declined with the advent of mass drug manufacturing. The role of the pharmacist changed, in large part, from purveyor to distributor. Still, mortars and pestles did not completely fall out of use.

Despite centuries of pharmaceutical innovation, a “one-size-fits-all” model may not meet the needs of every user. Over-the-counter medicines today often come in standardized dosages, formulated to meet the needs of the “average” user. But perhaps a patient needs a stronger prescription than is available on the market. Perhaps he or she is allergic to a specific ingredient in traditional remedies, and needs an alternative compound. Whatever the case, specialty compounding pharmacies continue to meet individual needs.

The History of Pharmacy Museum has hundreds of mortars and pestles, documenting more than a century of history. They come in an enormous variety of shapes, sizes and materials. One notable sub-collection is the Schering Collection. Between 1963 and 2009, the Schering Corporation released 44 commemorative mortars and pestles, one each year, except 2003, 2004, and 2007. These mortars and pestles were never sold, but were given away as promotional items to pharmacists who purchased the annual store display from Schering.

Each year’s mortar and pestle was dedicated to a significant person, organization or event. Unsurprisingly, most of them were related to the practice of pharmacy, commemorating, for example, the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Pharmacopeia (1970), the first president of the American Pharmaceutical Association (1980), or Maimonides, the father of pharmacy (1968). However, some editions commemorated non-pharmacy events like the bicentennial (1976), the millennium (2000), or the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage (1992).

These special mortars and pestles have grown in popularity and become highly collectible. Unfortunately, after a corporate merger with Merck, Schering discontinued the series after the 44th and final edition in 2009. The History of Pharmacy Museum is proud to have 42 of the 44 Schering mortars and pestles (missing the 1998 and 2002 editions).

Though mortars and pestles have seen a substantial decline in use, they remain a hallmark of the larger practice of pharmacy. (Next time you go to Walgreens, notice the store’s logo!) They are now commonly used as display items in retail pharmacies, much like show globes, or given out as awards or promotional items. The mortar and pestle image has become synonymous with pharmacy, and its historical significance lives on.

Originally posted: October 17, 2014
Last updated: March 22, 2017
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