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Saint Cosmas and Damian: the patron saints of pharmacy and medicine

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Miniature of Saints Cosmas and Damian from the 16th century

Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

26 September marks the feast day of Saint Cosmas and Damian according to the General Roman Calendar. Cosmas and Damian were third century Arabian-born twin brothers who embraced Christianity and practised medicine and surgery without a fee. This led them to be known as the holy unmercenaries, the Anargyroi (without silver). They reputedly cured blindness, fever, paralysis and reportedly expelled a breast serpent. They were arrested by Lysias, governor of Cilicia (modern day Çukurova, Turkey) during the Diocletian persecution because of their faith and fame as healers. Emperor Diocletian was a religious conservative and favoured the traditional Olympian Gods. He issued a series of edicts that condemned the Christians in his attempt to wipe out Christianity from his empire. 

Lysias sentenced the twins and their three brothers to death. The family were thrown into the sea but were saved by angels. The authorities then tried burning them at the stake but they remained unharmed. They were then stoned, crucified and shot with arrows but to no effect. They were finally beheaded and their bodies carried to the ancient Syrian city of Cyrrhus, the ruins of which lie very close to Aleppo. A basilica was erected over the tomb of the martyred twins and it became a site of pilgrimage.

Hundreds of healing miracles are attributed to the twin saints. They are most famous for the miracle of the black leg. The story goes that there lived a devout man, who served at the church dedicated to the saints in Rome and had a diseased leg. As he slept, the saints appeared to him carrying an ointment and an instrument. In his dream, the saints decided to remove his diseased leg surgically and grafted a healthy leg from a recently-deceased Ethiopian who was buried in another church. When this man awoke, he reached for his leg and felt no pain. He also apparently reached for a candle and observed that he now had two healthy legs although one was not his! When he was recovered enough, he was able to leap out from his bed and announce the happy news. The Wellcome Library in London holds a beautiful oil painting entitled ‘A verger’s dream: St. Cosmas and Damian performing a miraculous cure by transplantation of a leg’ in their collection and is available to view on request.

The reputation of the saints spread widely through Europe. Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527-565 AD, believed he was healed by their intercession and dedicated two churches in Constantinople, which was the capital city of the Roman/Byzantine Empire, in gratitude. Relics were dispersed across the continent. Their cult however did not resonate in England with only five churches dedicated to them. Early depictions of the saints did not distinguish which of them was the physician and which the pharmacist. Pharmacists however, identified St. Damian as a patron. The west front of Salisbury Cathedral has statues of the saints in niches 139 and 140. The statue of St. Damian in niche 140, can be identified as the pharmacist saint as he is holding a pestle and mortar in one hand and has the other raised as though to reproach his brother, St. Cosmas. All of the statues above the doors on the west front of the cathedral face the Christ child on St. Christopher’s shoulder except St. Cosmas who is positioned facing his brother. This is perhaps to emphasise their brotherhood.

This year, the 90th Italian Feast of the Healing Saints Cosmas and Damian was celebrated in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the weekend of 9-11 September. We can draw many parallels from their story with contemporary issues such as maintaining a free at the point of delivery NHS and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Perhaps this year, we should spare a thought to those fleeing persecution and conflict in Syria, pharmacists among them. It is reassuring though, that almost two millennia after St. Cosmas and Damian, physicians and pharmacists continue to work together. A lesson we could learn from the brothers is that we should continue to support each other in our careers and together develop healthcare services for the benefit of our patients.

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • In Portugal, to my knowledge there is no distinction as to which Saint is the patron of which profession, and 26th September is National Pharmacist's Day with appropriate events organized by the Pharmacist's Professional Order (a sort of guild).

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