Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 66(1) February 2016
Great Medical Lives.
Saints Cosmas and Damian,
Patron Saints of Pharmacists and
Next time you need to visit the chemist, ask the prayers of these twin brothers and saints, since they are the patrons of pharmacists.
Born in Arabia in the third century AD they are reported to have developed great skill in medicine and to have practised in the Syrian city of Cilicia, where they were widely venerated for their ability. No less a cause for admiration was their willingness to treat the sick without demanding any fees. Thus they are sometimes referred to as the 'Holy Unmercenaries'.
It is unclear for how long they were able to serve in this way, but around 287 a persecution of Christians began under the Roman Emperor Diocletian and the twins were arrested and subjected to a variety of tortures in the hope that they would recant their faith. Having remained steadfast through these trials, they were finally executed by beheading, reputedly accompanied in dying by their three younger brothers.
Examples of their work include unusual achievements. In particular they are said to have grafted the leg of a recently deceased Ethiopian onto the body of a patient whose own leg had been lost to cancer. Artistic representations of the feat frequently highlight this by depicting the leg as black and the patient's body as white.
Whatever we make of this, Cosmas and Damian rapidly grew in veneration across the Church. In the Roman Canon of the Mass, what we now term Eucharistic Prayer I, whose formulae of prayer go back to the early Christian centuries, they are listed among the saints named immediately after the Twelve Apostles. By the 4th century churches were already being dedicated in their honour, whilst portions of their relics were being widely sought. Amongst those who benefited from healing at their intercession was the 6th century Emperor Justinian, who, in gratitude, built and adorned a church for them in Constantinople. Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Felix IV busied himself with converting a former library, the Bibliotheca Pacis, into a basilica bearing their names. This church has, as with so many historic Roman churches, gone through a number of reconstructions, but still retains its famous original mosaics depicting the two saints being presented to Christ by St Peter and St Paul.
In the older form of the Roman Calendar the twins occupied 27 September as their feast, but were moved to the previous day to accommodate a more recent, but equally charitable saint, Vincent de Paul. Nonetheless we can give thanks that they remain as an optional celebration for us, since healing, generosity in giving and faithfulness unto death are gifts and virtues which Christ offers to and asks of us, and these twins show us what we can do.
The feast day of Sts Cosmas and Damian is 26th September