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Dubrovnik's Doctor


Dubrovnik has an interesting history of physicians and the relationships they had with patients.

Photography by the authors

Carved in 1464 by Pietro di Martino of Milan, he sits serenely twelve feet above us, gracing the Gothic columns that front the porch of the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik. Although some ancient books refer to the stone carving as “the God of Medicine,” many local guides see the person portrayed as the town’s doctor in the Middle Ages.

We gaze up as Maja Milovcic, our guide, points out the features.

“See! The doctor is sitting up there with his medicines beside him,” she says in clear English. “A container to provide clean water lies at his feet. His assistant, actually his daughter, stands there with her left hand pointing in the direction of the town’s pharmacy. Behind her, over there on the right of the carving waits the patient holding a chicken to pay the doctor!”

(For Lejean artwork published in Paris in 1860 that clarifies the details of this carved column, click here.)

A law was passed in 1301 when the first doctor came to Dubrovnik that declared doctors and pharmacists could not associate socially as they might conspire to kill people. Arsenic came into use as a medicine about that time, but it was also recognized as a poison. Both salt and arsenic looked so alike that another rule was passed that each could be bought only in the pharmacy, which was then charged with the responsibility of keeping them separate.

In medieval times Dubrovnik was a prosperous and well-run city. The archives in the Franciscan monastery show that doctors signed contracts with the authorities for the right to practice medicine. There was a catch (for physicians): The contract gave patients the right to declare a year later whether they felt improved by the treatment and, if not, the doctor had to return the fee!

“It was our first health insurance,” says Maja with a smile.

We decide to follow the carving’s pointing finger. It leads us along the Stradun, the main street, to the west side of town and to the Franciscan monastery where the monks in 1317 began preparing the town’s medicines in rituals known only to the clergy. The pharmacy was started essentially to treat “ailing friars,” but in 1420 ownership of the pharmacy was transferred to the city and the people were given access to its mysteries.

The now-public pharmacy, the only one in town, remains in its same location in the monastery having existed for six centuries as one of the oldest continuously operated pharmacies in the world. The monks haven’t quite given up their supervision: a carved column high in the cloisters opposite has a pharmacy friar monitoring the modern drug store below with a supercilious eye.

The medieval apothecary museum deserves its visitors. Its elegant displays below the arches in the side chambers of the monastery exhibit antique pharmacopeia and herbalist texts, and all the trappings of a successful 15th century business.

Missing from the monastery are its colorful apothecary jars —

but they can still be seen back in the east end of the Stradun where a five-minute walk will shortly return us to the carving and the Rector’s Palace.

The Stradun was formerly a stretch of water that separated the island Laus community to the south from the Slavic community on the land to the north. It was filled in to become a street when the two communities merged for mutual protection.

guardez L’eau

After a destructive siege of the city, the American Society of Travel Agents paid for the cobblestones to be restored. As early as 1377, every house on this street was connected to a sewer system at a time when many medieval towns like Edinburgh simply heaved their waste out their windows with a cry to the people walking below of “gardyloo!” from the French “,” meaning “take care, water!”

In 1438 Onofrio dell Cava created an aqueduct from the river eight miles away and led it to his Great Fountain, a cistern with 16 taps that provided water to all entering the city. Pilgrims drank it, of course, but even then in the interests of hygiene all he really wanted was for them to wash before coming into his town.

Plague came as it did all across Europe in 1527. It killed 2,000 of the town’s 5,000 residents. Thereafter Dubrovnik had a 40-day quarantine for any ship anchoring in its harbor.

Napoleon had an impact on Europe, too — beyond the victories of his armies. In 1806 in Dubrovnik he found the churches with their earthen floors offensively smelly, because often the dead were not buried too deeply in the floor itself. He ordered the churches to install marble floors.

A city hospice was built between 1347 and 1357 and became “an almshouse and a shelter for the poor and sick.” In 1540 the city turned it into a hospital funded by the town treasury. We walk past this old hospital and notice the windows have bars across them. There are lawyers in our small group so we resist asking the guide if the bars were there to keep out attorneys.

The passageways off the Stradun, 11 on the south side of the main street and 14 on the north, are very narrow eight-foot wide alleys. Many of those side streets have steep steps so a person who becomes ill has to be carried significant distances for help.

“You find who your friends are in this town,” says our guide.

The pharmacy artifacts on display in the Rector’s Palace include a pharmacist’s traveling case. The exhibits have an involved but well documented history in the Dubrovnik archives. The city transferred pharmacy management to a prominent pharmacist Mate Vokativo and his nephew Mate Savic in 1761 and in 1901 the Savic family sold the ceramic apothecary jars to the city.

Silver Wind

We leave the museum and head back to the dock for our ship. A Silversea cruise has surely been the easiest way to visit the Adriatic coast. We pass a street musician playing what looks like a lute, dressed in an outfit that goes back to the Middle Ages.

We then stop with our guide beside some words scratched on a limestone wall by the local priest at a time when a kind of soccer had become popular with the young people in the town. They were skipping church to play ball!

Remember, you who are playing with the ball, you will also die!

Maja translates the inscription. It is dated 1597, about the same time in Scotland that Mary Queen of Scots took up golf and the peasants felt encouraged to neglect archery practice for this new sport. Thus a priest carved a medieval message on the street wall. His words were meant to frighten those who should really be in church: “

They frighten us!

The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called

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