After taking the elevator to a floor high above the plant, you have to walk through long corridors and open a series of thick doors before you finally reach a heavy steel portal. Behind it is a nondescript room containing metal shelves: the Rara Room of Merck Corporate History. Dr. Katja Schmiederer picks up a number of small books. The spine of one of the books bears the embossed word “Macquer” in black gothic script, which remains sharply etched and clearly visible on the light-colored leather binding even after more than 200 years. Next to them is a book with a precious lock, while a volume containing magnificent engravings lies on the adjoining shelf.
Compared to these opulent books, Pierre Joseph Macquer’s Chemisches Wörterbuch (Chemical Dictionary) is fairly inconspicuous. However, the octavo volumes of the chemical dictionary are actually quite important, as the work is a milestone of modern science and pharmacy. Originally published in French in 1766, the encyclopedia marks the transition from the phlogiston theory of the early 18th century (involving a hypothetical substance that is emitted when matter is burned) to today’s oxidation theory as propounded by Lavoisier (the absorption and release of oxygen plays the key role in redox processes). The highly influential dictionary also marked the beginning of the separation of pharmacy from modern chemistry as an independent scientific discipline. Katja Schmiederer wrote her doctoral dissertation (titled Das Dictionnaire de Chymie von Pierre Joseph Macquer (1718-1784)) about this key work of modern chemistry, and Merck Corporate History was one of the most important places for her research.
The company’s memory
Published between 1781 and 1783, the German edition of Macquer’s work is one of the treasures of the Merck Corporate History collection. Schmiederer learned to appreciate the diversity, accessibility, expertise, and atmosphere of this Merck department while she was working on her dissertation. Her research focused on the six-volume German translation of the dictionary’s second French edition. Schmiederer’s dissertation, which was published by Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft Stuttgart in 2008, clearly states the great importance of Macquer’s encyclopedia in its subtitle. Translated into English it reads: “The original editions and translations as a reflection of the development of chemistry and pharmacy in the last third of the 18th century.”
“Merck Corporate History serves as the company’s memory. Besides the historical library with its specialist literature, the department has exhibition rooms for displaying corporate history, and, most importantly, archived documents relating to the Merck family and the entire global company,” explains Dr. Sabine Bernschneider-Reif, who heads the department. The Corporate History department’s origins go back to 1905, when an archive was established so that documents on corporate and family history in particular could be centrally housed. Since then, the collection has grown across a broad range of subjects, languages, and formats. In addition to documents written by researchers in the fields of pharmacy and chemistry, the department has archived material that demonstrates the family members’ wide range of interests.
At the heart of the library’s collection are the books known as pharmacopoeia. “These official and non-official pharmaceutical compendia regulate the composition, administration, and quality assurance of drugs. Their predecessors were herbals as well as recipe books owned by the nobility,” explains Bernschneider-Reif. Merck’s collection of pharmacopoeia reaches far back into pharmaceutical history. The earliest books are from the 16th century and are thus older than the family-owned business, which was founded in 1668 when Friedrich Jacob Merck bought the Angel Pharmacy. Reflecting the company’s international role, the more modern pharmacopoeia in the collection come from countries all over the world, including Argentina, the United States, Europe, and of course Germany in particular.
Schmiederer found it to be an invaluable help for her dissertation that she was able to use the collection of books from more than three centuries, including not only pharmacopoeia but also specialist literature on the history of pharmacy and chemistry. She first came to Merck Corporate History in search of an original copy of the translated Macquer dictionary. Because translations of the Dictionnaire de Chymie are not available as facsimiles or good reprints, Schmiederer had to find an original edition that she could actually work with.