In the quiet southern village of Mqabba, in a field on the corner of Triq iċ-Ċavi and Triq Santa Marija and flanked by a short, uneven stone wall, lies a small, weird structure. Crumbling and mostly overlooked, the building is referred to by locals as l-Ispiżerija (the pharmacy), and is even located very close to a building known as the Sptar l-Antik (the old hospital). And while very little is known about this building, it might very well hold the humble history to one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the world.
Back in 2015, the alleged story of the Mqabba structure was posted on Facebook. The post read that the building is actually one of the oldest surviving pharmacies in Europe. “It dates back to the 16th century and was built by the Knight La Roche,” the post by Mariella Mercieca (a pharmacist herself) read. And if that surname rings a bell, you’re not alone.
According to the Facebook post, the knight was actually an ancestor of Friz Hoffmann-La Roche… the founder of dermatological giant La Roche-Posay.
Ever since the Facebook post first appeared online nearly three years ago, it’s been shared a couple of hundred times. And you can understand why people were so fascinated by the story. If confirmed, it would mean that a tiny overlooked building in one of the smallest villages of one of the smallest countries in the world would be home to such a monumental legacy. However, confirming it all is where things start getting complicated.
The first step was contacting Mqabba Local Council. Acknowledging the fact that the structure was indeed known as a centuries-old pharmacy, representatives said that no documents on the building were ever found. The Local Council confirmed that the nearby old hospital was actually an old, Knights-era hospital, but didn’t have any more information on the mysterious pharmacy. “In fact, we would love to have more information on it, so please forward any findings you have to us!” they trailed off.
Next up was speaking to Mariella, the person who originally shared the Facebook post. This lead us to a pharmacy just opposite the structure, Kristianne Pharmacy. It turns out that the story goes all the way back to a 93-year-old Mqabba man affectionally referred to as “the archive” by locals. The man went on to elaborate that the structure even has a space in the middle where the medieval pharmacists used to burn herbal medicine for treatments. According to the man, (who said he had once seen some documents referring to the building), the only building similar to the one in Mqabba can be found “somewhere in France.”
The crumbling structure lies in a privately-owned field, and some Mqabba residents aren’t even aware of its existence. But the key to finding out even more information about it should lie with the De La Roche knight who allegedly built it.
Even with a unique noble family name like the De La Roche, tracing who this mystery knight might’ve been is way easier said than done. Descending from the la Roche Duke of the Athens of the late 12th century, the historical surname is very rare and exclusive. In fact, the dynasty makes it one of the few family names that have not had any branch-offs… an honour that only families like the Kennedies and the Rothschilds share.
There have been various books on the knights’ work in Malta. And while none of these books seem to mention the Mqabba building, the surname La Roche (and various derivations) does crop up a couple of times.
There was a John de la Roche Andry, a turcopolier (a mounted archer) in 1536. There was a Gabriel M. de la Roche Saint André, and even a P. Paul de la Roche Fontenille. There was even a La Roche-Rigault, who was quoted in a study on the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta. Speaking of which, a Brother Charles l’Aleman de la Roche-Chinard came up a couple of times. This grand prior of St. Giles was even referred to as ‘a remarkable instance’ of knights devoting as much of their money “to the common good”. The list goes on, and the search eventually also led to a registered Maltese company with the name De La Roche (MALTA) LTD (1680), however no phone number or further information is provided on what looked like a defunct company.
One of the most notable connections between Malta and La Roche is actually a 15-century château on the outskirts of Gençay, France. The gorgeous castle, aptly named Château de La Roche, is actually the only private museum in France dedicated to the Order of Malta. The castle was given as a wedding present in 1410 by Miss de La Roche to her husband, Nicolas Gillier, who was from a local family and in the court of Charles VII of France. Over 200 years later, the castle was inherited by Claude Brilhac, Commander in the Royal Army… and also Knight of the Order of Malta. Decades down the line, an officer with the Knights and a historian-collector started the Museum of the Order of Malta.
The cosmetics icon La Roche-Posay is said to have started in the French medieval village with the same name back in the 14th century. Legend has it that a knight called Bertrand du Guesclin had taken his horse (which suffered from a skin condition) to bathe in one of the streams there. When he saw that the horse was cured, the knight spread the news of the area’s thermal spring water with exception health benefits. Eventually, this led to a thermal-hospital-turned-spa-resort being built by Napoleon, which evolved into the largest centre of such treatments in Europe.
Around the same time, on 1st October 1896, 28-year-old Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche launched the company as an offshoot to a Swiss company he had. This, in fact, is as far back as the official Roche website’s history page goes back. And although Roche is actually unrelated to La Roche-Posay, their surname is not the only thing they share; the Swiss company is one of the leading pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Eventually, both Roche and La Roche-Posay grew to become the world’s leading healthcare and cosmetics companies (the latter of which lies under L’Oréal’s behemoth group of companies).
So where does this all leave us?
Well,the short answer is: more informed, but still a tad confused.
While the De La Roche family (and other relatives) seem to have been present in substantial numbers on the island, no official confirmation on who the De La Roche knight was can be found. And with that lack of information lies the most essential missing piece of the puzzle; whether this was indeed the humble, ancestral beginning of the gargantuan La Roche-Posay.
Not everyone is convinced though. User Xwejnusgozo had commented back in September 2017 that the structure is more likely “some form of agricultural building such as a store, although the form of the building is very unusual for Malta.” His argument was that it sounded weird that a pharmacy would have been randomly opened in such a remote village in the 16th century. “Note that the (nearby) hospital was built later in the 18th century, when the islands were free from corsair raids.”
If it does turn out that the structure is the 16th century indirect birth place of La Roche-Posay, however, this place should definitely be restored and turned into a museum of the medical professions. Unfortunately, between it being on private property and it having no official documents to prove its history, its fate might’ve already been sealed.
In the meantime, it seems like your best bet is visiting the quaint village of Mqabba, and speaking to the 93-year-old man who might know more about this than any historian out there.
Lovin Malta reached out to La Roche-Posay (both the international and the Maltese branches) for more information and a statement on Mqabba’s old ‘pharmacy’. No reply was received at the time of publishing.
UPDATE: La Roche-Posay’s Maltese branch has since reached out to Lovin Malta. After an informative and informal exchange, they said, “Whilst we do not have any information if the 16th century structure in Mqabba is directly or indirectly related to our brand, we are delighted to think that it does, at least by sharing part of our name.”