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British Society for the History of Pharmacy

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Our events programme covers a wide range of pharmacy history topics.  We hold 3 evening meetings each year, and annual conference, a summer visit, and a joint meeting with a School of Pharmacy.  Click on an event below to find out more.
Online via Zoom and YouTube
Monday 23 May 202218:30
Cost: Free

Precious pills, in Tibetan called Rinchen Rilbu, are unique multi-compound pills that form a special part of Tibetan medicine, which in Tibetan is known as Sowa Rigpa (“The science of healing”). Rinchen Rilbu are considered particularly potent because they include a variety of pre-processed precious and semi-precious stones (e.g. pearl, turquoise, coral, rubies, etc.) and metals (refined mercury, gold, etc.). This presentation will introduce the Tibetan tradition of Rinchen Rilbu from an anthropological and socio-historical perspective. The material presented is based on ethnographic analysis of the most common precious pills currently produced in India and Nepal and on a study of their formulas in Tibetan medical texts dating back to the twelfth century. I will explain why gems are considered potent in Sowa Rigpa and also analyze the recent commodification of precious pills and their popular use as tonics. These therapeutic formulas and their manufacturing processes have been deeply intertwined with the socio-political and religious history of pre-1959 Tibet. Since the 1980s they have been produced under very different circumstances in the Tibetan diaspora (e.g., in India and Nepal), as well as in Tibetan pharmacies in the People’s Republic of China. More recently, this long-standing Tibetan tradition has been impacted by global regulations on the use of mercury, specifically the United Nations Environment Program’s global ban on mercury, the Minamata Convention. How and under what conditions is this Tibetan pharmacological practice dating back to the 12th century surviving in the 21st century? How do new regulations and changing political and global conditions modulate the use of potent substances in Sowa Rigpa medical practice? In answering such questions, this presentation will introduce this specialized pharmacological tradition from Asia that has been in practice for close to eight hundred years.


Barbara Gerke has lived many years in Himalayan areas in India in Tibetan communities, researching Tibetan medicine. She co-founded and directed the International Trust for Traditional Medicine (ITTM) in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India, where she promoted students and research projects from 1995-2008. She holds an M.Sc. in Medical Anthropology (2003) and a D.Phil. in Social Anthropology (2008) from the University of Oxford. She has taught at UCSB, CA, and at Dartmouth College, NH, USA, and was assistant professor at the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany. In Berlin she was also the principal investigator of a research project on the use of mercury in Tibetan medicine and related safety and toxicity debates (2011-2015). At the University of Vienna, she held a Lise Meitner Senior Research Fellowship on “Biographies of Tibetan Precious Pills” (2015-2018), researching the genre of Tibetan precious pill formulas some of which contain refined mercury. Currently she is the principal investigator of the FWF-funded research project on “Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Rituals” (2018-2023) at the University of Vienna, which focuses on the multiple meanings of “potency” in Tibetan pharmacology and related ritual practice.

Her monograph Long Lives and Untimely Deaths (2012, Brill) analyses long-life rituals, as well as vitality and life-span concepts among Tibetans in the Darjeeling Hills. Her second monograph titled Taming the Poisonous: Mercury, Toxicity, and Safety in Tibetan Medical Practice, focuses on the social history of mercury refinement in Tibet and the developments of this pharmacological practice in contemporary India and Nepal. Her book was published open access with Heidelberg University Publishing (2021).

For her publications see:

You can register to join us on Zoom via Eventbrite The lecture will also be livestreamed on our YouTube channel.



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