Mortar & Pestles a history of mortar & pestles in pharmacy

Mortars and pestles are a staple of the Pharmacy profession.

A good Mortar and Pestle:

Must be hard enough to crush the substance, yet not brittle enough to break during the pounding and grinding of the material. It should be smooth and non-porous so the substance being ground will not be trapped and contaminate future preparations.


Mortar is essentially a bowl that can have pouring lips and handles

Handle is a blunt, club-shaped object used for crushing and grinding

Range in size from 1 ounce to 10 pints

Design has stayed relatively the same since the introduction of the Wedgwood Mortar and Pestle in the 1700’s.

When First Used:

Can be traced back to the Stone Age

Hunters/Gatherers/Savages needed to diversify what they ate, thus to eat things such as nuts and the need to grind grains, they needed a deposit (mortar) and a grinder (pestle)

Mortar and Pestle was needed to GRIND GRAINS - First known use

Early mortars stood on three pegs/feet to make sure flat surface did not move

First Medicine Use dates back to the Egyptians (1500B.C.)

They refined the mortar and pestle

Mortar became well-defined, deep and of a conical shape for efficacy of tirturating

Pestle was long-handled to fit hands

First REAL evidence for pharmaceutical purposes is linked to early Roman Empire (~27BC)

Origin of Name

Latin Origin for Naming

Mortarium - Receptacle for Pounding

Pistillum - Pounder

Most common Mortar and Pestle materials:

Cast Iron/ Brass

Used mostly by apprentices to “pulverize” crude drugs

Massive in size, 25-30 pounds

Usually ornamental

Brass Mortar and Pestle from 1613, priced at $3450 today



Stain resistant

Suitable for liquids

Do not grind as finely as ceramic

Most used


Mostly used in the kitchen for mixing/grinding of ingredients

Not used typically used in the Pharmacy


Made from biscuit porcelain first introduced in 1780 by Josiah Wedgwood

Better than glass for reducing particle size

Reduced contamination of particles

The “Classic” Mortar and Pestle

Pharmacologic Uses

Preparation of medicines/plants for pharmaceuticals

Chemical Preparations

Pill Grinding leads to increased absorption rate



Mixing Emulsions

17th Century Pharmacists used inscribed metallic mortars to show ownership, right of possession

Non-Pharmacologic Uses

Preparation of Food with herbs and spices (guacamole and pesto)

Preparation of Paint for frescoes and etc.

Preparation of Makeup for Men/Women

Grinding stones to powders/smaller pieces (military use with gun powder)

Witch Rituals or Magic Spells

Cultural Uses

Japan - Mochi/Moki prepared with Large Mortars with Mallets of Wood to obtain texture, often said processed by other means did not taste as good as with mortar and mallet

Hindu - Weddings and School Ceremonies, it was tradition to crush turmeric

West Asia - Used for grinding meat to make meatloaf (kebbeh) and hummus (masabcha)

Italy - Frescoes painted in the 15th Century depicted the mortar and pestle to be used by apothecaries

Caddo/Cherokee Indians - Grinded Corn

Mortar and Pestles as a Symbol

Prominent Symbol of Pharmacology that still exists today
Symbol in other parts of the world! Scotland Pharmacy pictured above

Baba Yaga

Russian Folklore , she was known as a goddess that rode a mortar and had a pestle in her hand to torment or not torment people

Spurned independent movie films, there is a 2013 movie called Mother Mortar, Father Pestle

Future of the Mortar and Pestle...

Many Automated grinders/ blenders available

Mortars and Pestles are hardly used in Pharmacy today, but remain an icon of the profession

Used more often in independent pharmacies that have more room for compounding


Ciment, James. “How They Lived: An Annotated Tour of Daily Life through History in Primary Sources [2 volumes]: An Annotated Tour of Daily Life through History in Primary Sources.” ABC-CLIO, 2015

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, and Kate Angus. “Ten Thousand Years of the Mortar and Pestle.” The Atlantic, 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Gramling, L.G., “A History of Pharmacy in Florida”, Ewing Printing, Gainesville, FL, 1973

Griffenhagen, George. "The Mortar and Pestle." Tools of the Apothecary (1956): 112-13. Web.

Haas, S. (n.d.). Mortar and Pestle: Old School Kitchen Tool. Retrieved December 14, 2016, from

Created By
Carlos Ojeda

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