Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Apothecary Museum, Alexandria, Virginia

Before the existence of modern pharmaceutical companies, where did your doctor get medicines to relieve your pain? From the local apothecary, who had apprenticed to be able to diagnose ailments and dispense natural remedies. Using recipes, he would measure and weigh herbs, spices, gums, roots, barks, leaves, seeds, and buds, and then grind them in a mortar and pestle to produce liniments, potions, tinctures, elixirs, and pills. Hearing stories from our guide in Alexandria’s Apothecary Museum was fascinating. Some examples …

Early American apothecaries dispensed common pokeberry “medicine” to calm inflammation. The ink used on early American documents was not purchased at Staples; rather, it was made from fermented pokeberries. Although unicorns exist only in the imagination, unicorn root is a rhizome used for centuries to relieve stomach aches, colic, dysentery, and other ailments. Turpentine gum? You don’t only clean your paint brushes with it—at one time it was thought to get rid of parasites in the human body. Mandrake root myths abound, but colonial Americans used it to regulate the liver and bowels and to lessen jaundice.

The remedies themselves are interesting to learn about. Seeing the original storage drawers in the root department, gum department, bark department, and so forth, is impressive. The natural medicine recipe book, its page edges brown and crumbling, is huge. The apothecary also made perfumes; some bottles are on display. At the dawn of the 1800s, baby bottles were blown glass of various shapes; even the nipple was glass, though our guide conceded that dried cow udders were often attached to the bottle instead. Some shelves contain other blown glass bottles for storage; bottles with wide necks stored powders, while bottles with narrow necks stored liquids.

The history of this particular apothecary is interesting as well. It began in 1792, with Edward Stabler and continued with his brother-in-law’s descendants, the Leadbeaters, until 1933. That’s a pretty respectable run—141 years of retailing, wholesaling, and manufacturing.

A thirty-minute guided tour is your only option if you want to see this interesting piece of history. I heartily recommend one! Alexandria is less than ten miles from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, so you will hear stories of his family’s dealings with this apothecary. During the Civil War, the Union Army occupied Alexandria, so you will hear about the apothecary’s role in treating wounded soldiers. And you’ll get a slice of the history of medicine, from the four humors to germ theory, with a little controversy thrown in—laudanum, blue mass (mercury) pills, and belladonna stories.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
105–107 South Fairfax Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Phone: 703.746.3852

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