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Pharmacy Museum blends history, eccentricity and drugs

Arriving at the unassuming building in a relatively quiet part of the French Quarter, you might ask why you ended up here.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

“It’s America’s first licensed pharmacy!”

My eager reply would probably elicit a blank stare, or a “Who cares?”

As a Tulane medical student and the son of a history teacher, I admit that the concept of The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum interests me more than the average New Orleanian. Still, I dare you not to be filled with a bit of awe and excitement when you step into the dimly lit first-floor apothecary where hundreds of containers filled with who knows what greet you.

The museum’s beauty is that it works on many levels. Initially, the pharmacy appeals to our childlike interest in the shiny and mystical. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, you could just stand in the center of the main room and twirl for hours with each slow spin revealing something new. First, the beautiful marble and wood soda fountain and the massive wooden shelves holding everything. Next, the large glass jars with dried leaves and twigs — some as recognizable as sage and rosemary, others with foreign names. Next, the smaller bottles of every size, shape and color filled with elixirs or blue, yellow, and white powders. Finally, the small pills covered in gold, silver, and mercury might catch your eye.

Once I got past the visuals, I began to read displays about some of the more intriguing medications that appeal to our carnal interests in the unmentionable. A splendidly horrific display of bone saws and early surgical instruments seems straight out of a graphic movie. Nearby, a jar of live, squirming leeches startled me as I glanced up from engrossing accounts of “questionable” medical practices. Everything from cocaine to absinthe was once offered as a “legitimate” remedy, and the museum covers all the major illicit drugs and their past (or current) medicinal uses.

Similarly, a New Orleans museum would not be complete without due respect to alcohol. This one does not disappoint, offering almost an entire upstairs room to alcohol’s role in pharmaceuticals and medicine. It considers the good — alcohol was perhaps the best antiseptic and sedative at one time — and the bad — pharmacies were (sometimes rightfully) accused of being the new saloons during the prohibition as they were one of the few places legally allowed to carry alcohol, and the ugly — most “patent medications” (salesmen’s elixirs for ailments) that were taken by everyone including children contained large, undisclosed amounts of alcohol.

As I moved through the displays, I learned all sorts of interesting facts, from the origin of throwing rice at a wedding (it improves fertility) to voodoo uses of herbs and “evil eyes.”

Soon, a new appeal arose — the pleasure of hindsight. The American Medical Association approved heroin for routine pain management? And they thought it wasn’t addictive? Ridiculous! Children were often given alcohol with medications to improve the taste? Absurd! Tobacco was used to cure asthma? Idiots! Doctors commonly practiced bloodletting and prescribed medications with arsenic or mercury when they didn’t know what else to do? Malpractice! Scoffing at the ignorance of those before us is surprisingly fun, and you will find plenty to laugh and shake your head at.

Still, while I enjoyed looking at past mistakes and breathed a sigh of relief that we’re better off than our forefathers, I also began to wonder about the present. How many of the practices we currently use will someday be laughed at by our children or grandchildren? There’s no way to be sure, and, while regulations and standards have significantly improved, we will surely look back at some of the medications or treatments and wonder what we were doing.

On the other hand, the museum demonstrates that more than a few of the seemingly ridiculous historical remedies turned out to be confirmed by modern medicine. For example, voodoo practitioners sometimes prescribed moldy bread to treat the ill. Gross? Genius. Alexander Fleming later discovered that mold contained the antibiotic penicillin.

This led me thoughts of the current discussion about alternative medical practices. Will future New Orleanians look at an exhibit on medical marijuana and laugh at our prudishness, as we do at yesterday’s prohibitionists and teetotalers? Or will we discover that the negatives far outweigh the benefits?

Like any good history book or movie, the museum leaves you contemplating how far we’ve really come and where we’ll end up.

Jarod DuVall currently lives the not-so “Big Easy” life as a Tulane medical student. In his ample spare time, he enjoys exploring New Orleans. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis as a Howard Nemerov Writing Scholar.


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