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.

| December/January 1997

  • Photograph courtesy of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
  • Originally an apothecary shop, this site is now a tourist attraction in the French Quarter.
    Photograph courtesy of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
  • Dufilho’s courtyard garden, from which he harvested his medicines, has changed over time with encroaching shade.
    Photograph courtesy of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
  • Foxgloves
    Photograph by Geraldine Laufer
  • Castor beans Many of the jars on these mahogany shelves were filled in the nineteenth century by Louis Joseph Dufilho, Jr., America’s first licensed pharmacist. The vast majority of the medicines of the day were plant-based.
    Photograph by Geraldine Laufer

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.

Cleve from MD
7/23/2020 6:08:12 PM

I remember going there with my Pharmacognosy Professor, Dr.Blomster, (from UMD). It was incredible. The proprietor once he learned who he was, decided to bring out the more interesting items to share. I felt so lucky to have a moment like that, history, didactic, & personal experience rolled in one.

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