Getting your meds at the Vatican

Vatican City State has its own unique, and large, drug store

A pharmaceutical robot is seen at the Vatican in this undated photo. The Vatican pharmacy, which serves some 2,000 customers a day, two years ago started using a pharmacy robot to more efficiently manage its stock, automatically retrieve medications and deliver them quickly to the sales floor.

If Pope Francis had a headache, where would he go for an aspirin?

Well, since he is the pope, Francis would probably ask someone to get one for him. However, if he were so inclined, he could also do what most of us would do and pop over to the local pharmacy.

In the pope’s case, that would mean a trip to what some have called the busiest pharmacy in the world: the Vatican Pharmacy, or Farmacia Vaticana. It’s across Vatican Square from the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the pope lives, and also near the Vatican Post Office. The pharmacy serves 2,000 customers a day. It is also the only pharmacy in the world that accepts foreign prescriptions.

The Farmacia Vaticana, which moved into remodeled quarters in September of 2020, employs about 50 people. It was founded in 1874, at a time in history when the pope was virtually a prisoner in the Vatican. Beginning in September of 1870, there was a dispute between the Italian government and the Holy See about the sovereignty of the pope. As a result, successive pontiffs, starting with Pope Pius IX, did not leave Vatican confines until 1929, when the Lateran Treaty established the city-state of Vatican City. In the meantime, the pope and cardinals living at the Vatican needed medications.

To the rescue came Br. Eusebio Ludvig Fronmen, a member of the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God. He set up a small storeroom at the Vatican to dispense medicine. This soon led to the official founding of the pharmacy with Br. Eusebio at the helm. The Hospitallers of St. John of God have run the pharmacy ever since, though most of its employees are now laypeople.

The Vatican, under Pope Pius IX, chose the Brothers Hospitallers order because they also ran a nearby hospital on Tiber Island called Fatebenefratelli Hospital. The brothers had been at that hospital since 1581, and had been steadfast in caring for their patients, even for victims of a plague in 1656.

The Farmacia Vaticana has been at its present location since 1917, near St. Anne’s Gate and across the street from the Vatican supermarket in Palazzo Belvedere.

Today, the pharmacy offers not only prescriptions, but also cosmetics and personal hygiene products, vitamins and over-the-counter pain medicines from the United States, as well as Germany and Switzerland. The inventory includes more than 40,000 items. The pharmacy also makes some of its own signature products in the cellar right beneath the store. Its homemade elixirs include a quinine distillation, a cologne, anise syrup and a dandruff cure. It also makes its own soaps and lavender water.

Also, because it is not subject to Italian pharmaceutical regulations, the Vatican pharmacy is able to bring new drugs to patients faster. The Vatican City State can purchase directly from international drug manufacturers. It does so as long as the drugs have passed other nations’ standards and approval. All this results in a great deal of savings, up to 25%.

To get a prescription filled, customers must have a recent medical prescription, present an ID and also obtain a permit through the Vatican’s registry office. Drugs can also be ordered by fax. Payment is cash, bank draft or credit card.

To speed things up, the pharmacy added robots to its warehouse facility two years ago. These were designed by BR Rowa of Germany. At the time, the pharmacy’s director, Br. Thomas Mulackal, told the Catholic newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that the automated technology would cut customer wait time by 30%. And that really matters when you have a headache.

To learn more, visit the pharmacy’s website at farmaciavaticana.va.

 

Sources: Catholic News Service; vatican.va; romereports.com; joansrome.wordpress.com ; fsspx.news; The Catholic Transcript July 22, 1966, at thecatholicnewsarchive.org; cathnews.com; farmaciavaticana.va; Order of St. John of God at ohsjd.org.