An important area within the Sacra Infermeria was the Pharmacy, since it provided medications to both the Sacra Infermeria which was the hospital for men and the Casetta which was the hospital for women. The pharmacy at the Sacra Infermeria or the Spezieria, also supplied the Knights galleys as well as the slave prisons. Hence, medicine had to be restocked as well as kept in appropriate containers.
Numerous containers of all shapes and sizes used to be lined up on the shelves of the Sacra Infermeria, in order to conserve liquids and herbs as well as solid medicinal preparations. The containers were made from various materials, depending on the substances they were meant to store, but the most popular were the jars and vases made from majolica. The first evidence of such jars being used in Malta dates to 1592. An inventory of a pharmacy in Rabat documents a list of over 180 containers of the sort, nevertheless, no description of their shape and appearance was given. Sadly, none of the jars in this collection have survived the passage of time. The earliest majolica jars that we have in Malta belong to the 17th and the 18th Century. These jars used to form part of the equipment of the pharmacies of Santo Spirito Hospital in Rabat and the Sacra Infermeria in Valletta. The jars came into various shapes and sizes, and used to be decorated in different colours and designs. Some of the jars even bore the coat of arms of the Grand Masters, such as those of Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, Alof de Wignacourt, and Ramon Perellos. Most of the jars were manufactured in Italy and Sicily.
After the departure of the Knights of Saint John, the Sacra Infermeria continued to operate as a hospital during British rule, and was known as the Station Hospital. In 1830, the Inspector General of Military Hospitals in Malta, Dr John Hennen, describes the still extant pharmacy with its laboratory as being in the same state as when the Infirmary was still run by the Order. Hennen also made a reference to a number of surviving majolica jars, as well as various apparatus used for distilling, making decoctions and extracts, expressing oils, preparing ointments, powders, etc.
Both the pharmacy and the laboratory were destroyed during the second world war due to enemy bombings. In May 1941, the Upper Courtyard was directly hit causing considerable damage to this part of the complex. Today, nothing remains of this once very important part of the hospital.
The latest development in the long history of the Sacra Infermeria came only last year, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital.
Re-Living the Sacra Infermeria is a project co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund.
Savona-Ventura, C. (2004). Knight Hospitaller Medicine in Malta [1530-1798]. Malta: Publishers Enterprises Group (PEG) Ltd
Cassar, P. (1987). An outline history of pharmacy: part 3: the history of Maltese pharmacy. The Pharmacist, 16, 12-16.
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta