Powdered Mummies Used as Medicine

Belief in a miraculous panacea.

OUR CORPORATE ARCHIVE HAS SKELETONS IN ITS CLOSET — LITERALLY

The mummy parts that are now exhibited in a climate-controlled chamber at the archive were regarded as a miraculous medicine called Mumia vera aegyptiaca well into the 20th century. After being exhibited in various museums all over the world, the mummies were returned to Darmstadt.

A first-day-on-the-job surprise

Sabine Bernschneider-Reif, head of Corporate History at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, remembers finding a glass box encased in wood on one of her first days on the job in Darmstadt in 1999. “Crammed into the box were two heads, a bandaged of feet, and a single uncovered foot,” she recalls. She was not shocked by this discovery. Thanks to her degree in pharmacology and Ph.D. in the history of pharmacology, she was familiar with its label, Mumia vera aegyptiaca. “Mummy parts from Egypt were used as medicine until the early 20th century,” she explains. As late as 1924, a kilogram of mummy powder cost 12 gold marks, according to the price list of Firma E. Merck Darmstadt, Germany.    

Sabine Bernschneider-Reif is head of Corporate History at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. Sabine Bernschneider-Reif is head of Corporate History at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

Sabine Bernschneider-Reif

Sabine Bernschneider-Reif is head of Corporate History at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

Mummies: preserved for eternal life

Today it seems odd and a bit macabre, but mummy powder has been treated as a healing substance in medical literature since the 16th century. Paracelsus (1493-1541) may have had mummies in mind when he assigned the name “mumia” to what was thought to be the vital force. The Persian word mum meaning wax migrated into Arabic and from there into other languages. It refers to asphalt, one of the materials sometimes used to preserve mummies.

Egyptian mummies were used as medicine until well into the 20th century.

sabine bernschneider-reif

Head of Corporate History

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany

Miraculous properties of mummy powder

In the later history of pharmacology, some of the disinfectant resins and asphalt elements formerly used for embalming were successfully used to treat wounds. Thus a grain of truth was added to the belief in the miraculous properties of mummy powder. 

People also initially believed that only miracles could have preserved certain mummies in an almost frighteningly lifelike state for thousands of years — for example, Scythian mummies preserved in permafrost, bog bodies discovered in Europe, and mummies in the Taklamakan Desert in Central Asia. Whereas corpses traditionally buried in grades soon crumble into dust, mummies seem to carry at least a spark of something resembling life.    

“Let those believe it who want to and can”

This combination of properties must have exerted a great fascination on the superstitious people of the Middle Ages. The principle that “like is healed by like” is a fundamental principle that underlies homeopathy and also, for example, the belief that a man’s potency can be heightened by consuming powdered rhinoceros horn. Mummies seemed to contain a panacea that preserved life. In the early modern era, attitudes toward the healing art underwent a change. In 1739, Johann Heinrich Zedler came close to calling mummy powder a placebo in his Universal Lexicon when he wrote, “Let those believe it who want to and can.”

A computer tomograph and the University Clinic in Mainz confirmed that the mummy parts in the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany collection are genuine. A computer tomograph and the University Clinic in Mainz confirmed that the mummy parts in the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany collection are genuine.

A computer tomograph and the University Clinic in Mainz confirmed that the mummy parts in the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany collection are genuine.

Nonetheless, this belief persisted for a long time, promoting a brisk business that encouraged counterfeiting. “The mummy parts in our collection are genuine, however,” says Bernschneider-Reif. That has been clear ever since they were displayed in a major exhibition at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim. “Before they were exhibited, they were examined in a computer tomograph at the University Clinic in Mainz, among other things. At the ETH Zurich, radiocarbon dating showed that they were buried around 270 B.C.,” she says.

The well-preserved mummy parts are on display at Corporate History. The well-preserved mummy parts are on display at Corporate History.

The well-preserved mummy parts are on display at Corporate History.

In dignity and optimally conserved

It is no longer possible to determine how these relics came to be in the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany collection. Did they come from the Engel Apotheke (Angel Pharmacy), the origin of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany? Did Johann Anton Merck bring them back to Darmstadt from one of his extended journeys in the 1770s? Or were they found by Willy Merck, the head of the company’s factory production, in his search for new drugs that started in 1887? That was the year in which this so-called product began to appear regularly in the company’s business records. Two years later, the first American edition of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany’s Index emphasized the drug’s authenticity by offering it expressly as Mummy, true Egyptian.

 

Embedded in the history of pharmacology

Today the use of mummy powder as a drug is part of the history of medicine. Mummies, like shrunken heads, are defined as corpses or parts of corpses and dealt with accordingly. “That was what motivated me to bring our mummy parts back to Darmstadt after sending them out to a number of exhibitions, including some in the United States,” says Bernschneider-Reif. A special climate-controlled walk-in chamber was set up for them in the corporate archive to serve as a dignified final resting place under optimal conservation conditions. Here the mummy parts are not merely exhibited but also embedded in their special place in the history of pharmacology. Above and beyond their unique fascination, they tell visitors stories about the age in which people believed in miracles, and thus make the progress of science since then even more visible.    

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