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A History of the Apothecary: The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum lets visitors explore the role of the apothecary through the ages, his responsibilities and methods of healing.
By Geraldine Adamich Laufer
December/January 1997
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Photograph courtesy of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
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Above the doorway of a beautiful old building in New Orleans’s French Quarter hangs the centuries-old emblem of the apothecary, the mortar and pestle, which at one time proclaimed “pharmacist” to even the illiterate. This site at 514 Rue Chartres is now the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, one of the finest of its kind. Built in 1823 to house an apothecary shop, the building is a meticulously restored Creole townhouse of brick and stucco with lacy iron balconies. The graceful arches of the ground-floor facade frame a coach door ­intended for clients ­arriving in horse-drawn carriages and a double door for pedestrians. In the bowed front windows, colored liquids in large glass globes once warned travelers whether an epidemic was in progress (red liquid) or not (green or blue).

The pharmacist of old

Stepping inside onto the original Belgian stone floor takes a visitor back in time. Majestic hand-carved mahogany cabinets line the walls from floor to ceiling. They hold handblown apothecary jars labeled in gold and filled with ancient chemicals, crude drugs, and herbs such as foxglove, belladonna, eyebright, feverfew, and opium poppy from which the pharmacist compounded his preparations. Mortars and pestles of diverse sizes, shapes, and materials perch like pigeons on the lower shelves.

Near the entrance stands a white, lidded ceramic jar labeled “Leeches” and beside it, a water-filled mason jar containing living leeches. The display underscores the gravity and prevalence of the old practice of bloodletting. Glass cabinets nearby hold pill rollers, suppository molds, blue glass poison bottles, rice-flour wafers that were filled with medicines to make swallowing them easier, and thin sheets of gold and silver leaf to coat lozenges. Instruments include saws for amputating limbs, a tonsil guillotine, and a huge pewter hypodermic syringe. Lancets and shallow basins, used to take blood, and antique scales in their original protective glass cases, once used to weigh out herbs and prescriptions, represent further facets of the pharmacist’s job.

A black marble pharmacist’s counter looks ready for customers. At hand above the counter are pharmacopoeias, official registers describing the properties, preparation, and use of drugs and other medicines. By the nineteenth century, pharmacopeias had replaced the herbals that had provided both medical and gardening information since the Middle Ages. The first U.S. Pharmacopoeia, drawn up by a convention of doctors and pharmacists in 1820, describes such “official” herbs as Salvia officinalis (garden sage) and Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) as well as drugs then in use. In 1888, the American Pharmaceutical Association published the first National Formulary, establishing standards for the strength, quality, and purity of drugs. Individual pharmacists manufactured their own drugs, with most of the active principles coming from medicinal plants.

Records of the prescriptions prepared at the New Orleans pharmacy were kept, seven years’ worth at a time, on a 3-foot-tall spindle. Each prescription was also entered in a large clothbound book; the elegant penmanship is a reminder that everything was done by hand in those early days.

Licensed circuit-riding pharmacists brought medicines and relief to the people of outlying settlements. The museum has a rare example of a leather prescription book used on such circuits, with a prescription for a different malady in each of its linen pockets. Unlike the traveling medicine man with his kit of cure-all patent medicines; the circuit pharmacist was analogous to the traveling clergyman who brought spiritual succor to early settlements.

One set of hand-carved mahogany cabinets was built in New Orleans about 1870 for Dr. Legoll, a graduate of Tulane University’s School of Pharmacy. He shipped them to Le Pharmacie Française in New York City, where he established his practice. After more than 100 years of service in New York, the cabinets were donated by the Legoll family to Tulane, which stored them for almost forty years before giving them to the museum, where, having come full circle, they now adorn the second floor.

Beauty of the day

Perfumes and cosmetics of the nineteenth century might be homemade or compounded by the pharmacist. A curved glass cosmetic counter at the museum contains glass perfume bottles once filled with distillates of gardenias, magnolia blossoms, and jasmine. A heavy tin-lined copper still dating from about 1890 stands ready to distill rose petals, flower essences, and herbal spirits. The face creams and rouges that the pharmacist prepared may have helped create the peaches-and-cream complexion for which the belles of the old South were renowned. References such as A. Debay’s Histoire des Parfums et des Fleurs, de Leurs Diverses Influences sur L’Economie Humaine et de Leur Usage dans La Toilette des Femmes, Mystères et Merveilles de L’Empire de Flore, published in Paris in 1851, provided the pharmacist with basic recipes that he might then customize. Common ingredients such as lavender, honey, and beeswax are still used in cosmetics today, but others we would view askance. Acetate of lead, face powders containing arsenic, belladonna to widen the pupils of the eyes, bleaching agents such as ammonia, nitrate of mercury, or quicksilver, spirits of turpentine, creosote, and tar were dangerous constituents on the path to beauty. How many people may have made themselves ill by regularly using a lead comb to “darken vigorous hair”, as suggested in Cooley’s Instructions and Cautions Respecting the Selection and Use of Perfumes, Cosmetics and other Toilet ­Articles (1873)?

Fizz and voodoo

In addition to dispensing medicines in pill, lozenge and tablet form, nineteenth-century pharmacists devised flavored sodas and syrups to make their prescriptions more palatable. The museum’s black-and-rose Italian marble soda fountain dating from 1855 dispensed sweet syrups and fizzes. An elixir called Nectar Soda Phosphate was developed by New Orleans pharmacists to disguise the taste of medicine. (The formula for Coca-Cola was also invented by a pharmacist.) Cocaine and alcohol were common ingredients in sodas and did a great job of masking symptoms.

Another part of the museum ­houses the voodoo powders and gris-gris potions that were important to many New Orleans residents. Multifarious potions and herbal compounds were used together with amulets, dolls, charms, and chants for healing and to promote a feeling of well-being.

The museum continues up a carefully restored staircase to an examination room and library on the second floor. The library houses diverse books on medicine, chemistry, pharmacy, herbs, gardening, and perfumery. Glass and wooden cases display certificates, documents, and photographs accumulated over the decades.

Beginnings

America’s first licensed pharmacist, Louis Joseph Dufilho, Jr., built his apothecary shop on this site in 1823, a mere twenty years since James Monroe, an agent for then President Thomas Jefferson, had negotiated with the emperor Napoleon to purchase the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. According to a plaque erected by the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, “Pharmacist Dufilho symbolizes the beginning of a system of certifying the professional competence of Pharmacist, and the recognition of the vital significance of that competence for the public health.”

Dufilho was born in France in 1787 and attended the Sorbonne in Paris, earning degrees in chemistry and pharmacy. He traveled to New Orleans in 1803 and on May 11, 1816, earned his pharmacy license after an examination by the medical board appointed by Louisiana Governor William Claiborne. After practicing pharmacy for several years with his elder brother on Rue Toulouse, he opened his own shop on Rue Chartres and maintained a successful business there for more than thiry years.

In 1855, Dufilho and his ­family returned to France, where he died the next year. His pharmacy, building, and stock were purchased by a physician, James Dupas, who opened medical offices on the second floor. Dupas acted as both physician and pharmacist, filling his own prescriptions until 1865. Subsequent owners during the next century changed the character and function of the building.

Recapturing the past

By the mid-1940s, American pharmacies were undergoing rapid change. Al Jensen, a third-generation pharmacist and museum docent with an encyclopedic knowledge of the museum and its history, explains: “The small independent drugstores were being taken over by the chain stores and supermarkets, and many people were wondering what to do with Grandpa’s gold-label bottles. The science of pharmacy was changing overnight.” By that time, the old apothecary building had been ­acquired by New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri and deeded to the city.

Local newspapers called for preserving the building as a pharmacy museum. The dean of Loyola University’s School of Pharmacy and City Commissioner Fred Earhart, also a pharmacist, were active in gaining support. Pharmaceutical curios and bottles from Dufilho’s time were unearthed in the back courtyard when the building’s exterior and first floor were restored. The museum opened in 1950. Further restoration and the repair of the upper floors, carried out in part by convict labor, were finished in 1986. The museum now hosts 30,000 visitors a year.

The physic garden

Behind the building, a brick-walled courtyard paved with cobblestones encloses a cutting garden that once supplied medicinal herbs for Dufilho’s pharmacy practice. The pharmacist grew perishable medicinal crops close at hand in the courtyard so that he could make fresh preparations and extractions. A lacy iron balcony on the second floor overlooks this pleasant area. The original courtyard included not only the garden area but also a work space, slave quarters, and a garçonnière, a sleeping room for young unmarried men.

The courtyard would have contained a number of beautiful, potent plants. Among the medicinal herbs that ­Dufilho grew is the stately foxglove, the source of a powerful heart stimulant and diuretic. Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, with its sweet, poisonous fruits, has leaves and roots that furnish several constituents that are used as antispasmodics (Atropos, in Greek mythology, was one of the three Fates and the one who held shears to cut the thread of human life.) Opium poppies yield several narcotic drugs including morphine, heroin, and codeine. The drug opium is the dried sap that exudes from the ripening seed capsules after scoring with a sharp knife. Laudanum (opium tincture) was widely used by young and old alike with little or no regard for its addictiveness. Castor beans are a violent purgative, but the cold-­expressed oil is a relatively mild laxative that was also used to expel intestinal parasites. The clever pharmacist covered its nauseating taste with lemon, peppermint, or sassafras oils or disguised it in flavored sodas.

Other, less toxic plants include horehound, which Dufilho would have used to make cough drops and stick candy. Garlic was poulticed on sores and wounds as well as rheumatic limbs. Chamomile, mustard, and bay, along with jasmine, roses, and gardenias, were grown for perfumery and cosmetics. Other medicinal herbs were collected from the surrounding countryside.

Because neighboring buildings now cast shade on the courtyard, a different selection of plants grows there today. The yellow rose ‘Lady Banksia’ towers two stories, and medicinal herbs and heavily scented vines grow in containers and in narrow borders along the walls. Culinary herbs include shallots, chives, dill, tarragon, calendula, peppermint and spearmint, sweet basil, sweet marjoram, parsley, sage, pineapple sage, thyme, nasturtiums, and Johnny-jump-ups. Tender or tropical angel’s trumpet, brunfelsia, dwarf ginger lily, butterfly iris, banana, crinum lily, and cast-iron plant may all be found in the courtyard, as may yaupon holly, a purgative; leatherleaf mahonia, a reputed blood purifier; and allspice, listed until 1914 as an aromatic stimulant and carminative in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. Kumquat, pear, Japa­nese yew, sweet olive, southern magnolia, rose-of-Sharon, Japanese plum, crepe myrtle, and hydrangea trees also shade the courtyard. Toward the back of the courtyard, visitors hear the enchanting sound of water splashing over the rim of a fountain.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum has effectively re-created the shop of a practicing apothecary of the nineteenth century. His patients depended on him, his experience, his pharmacopoeia, and his discretion.

Toiletries of another century

Here are two beauty formulas that a nineteenth-century pharmacist might have prepared: a pomade “much esteemed for the hair, and also as an occasional skin-cosmetic” and a pair of skin-softening gloves “worn by ladies in bed”. Both are taken from Perfumes, Cosmetics and other Toilet Articles, by Arnold J. Cooley (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1873).

POMMADE DIVINE.
—Take of
 

Plain pommade* (or soft beef fat) . . . 1 pound;
melt by a very gentle heat, and stir in, of
Essence of violets . . . . . . . 2 fluid drachms;
Huile au jasmine . . . . . . 11/2' '
Oil of bergamot . . . . . . . . of each
' lemon . . . . . . . . . . . . .1 fluid drachm;
' lavender . . . . . . . . . . .of each
' origanum . . . . . . . . . .1/2 fluid drachm;
Nerol . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . of each,
Oil of cassia . . . . . . . . . .
' cloves . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5 or 6 drops.
' verbena . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Delightfully and powerfully fragrant.

*The usual basis of ordinary pomatum, or pommade, for use in this climate, is either a mixture of 2 parts hog’s lard and 1 part beef-suet; or, 5 parts lard, and 2 parts of mutton-suet; the fats being both previously carefully ‘rendered’ or prepared, and then melted together by a gentle heat. The latter mixture is chiefly used for ‘white’ pomatum or pommade.


Geraldine Adamich Laufer tends her large garden in Atlanta. She speaks and writes on herbal topics and is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion.


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