Saturday, 3 December 2016

apothecary stories

One thing that makes me happy is stumbling upon little gems like the apothecary museum of Alexandria. Two hours earlier I didn't even know it existed and now I am the owner of an impressive photo collection of pharmaceutic bottles on my phone. It's a little piece of heaven for nostalgic souls like me and I'm happy to be able to share it here on my blog.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary closed its doors in 1933 after declaring bankruptcy and its last owner - Edward S. Leadbeater Jr. - died a few days later, putting an end to a long family business story that started back in 1792. Luckily for us, the apothecary was preserved as is with the original shop furnishing and objects such as mortars and pestles, those incredibly beautiful hand-blown medicine bottles with gold-leaf labels standing on old, wooden shelves, formula books, prescriptions (whereof one is written out for Martha Washington, George Washington's wife), journals, letters, invoices, boxes with magical inscriptions: dragon's blood, prickly ash (and not ass like I initially thought) berries, unicorn roots...

Typography, vintage signs, beautiful brick walls, squeaky wood floors, drawers with porcelain knobs, all so well preserved. And the manufacturing room on the second floor where the medicine was prepared is incredible to step into.

The part I'm not so nostalgic about is how approximate the science was at the time. It seems a lot of the time luck was your best ally in getting well. Some of the treatments worked, some where mostly about drinking alcohol (which in high amounts sure does make you feel better), for babies too, some didn't work and some would actually worsen your condition or maybe even kill you.

I found an interesting article about these little blue pills - not the ones you're thinking about - the (in)famous blue mass pills Abraham Lincoln apparently took, a mercury-based medicine widely used from the late 17th century to the 19th (you can see a box on the very first picture of this post if you scroll back up). Originally used to treat syphilis it ended up being used as a remedy for tuberculosis, toothache, childbirth pain, constipation, you name it. At the time they didn't know how toxic it was in high doses or that it could lead to heavy-metal poisoning. Each blue mass pill contained at least 33% mercury and if you took a typical prescription of 2-3 pills per day you would be more than 100 times above the limits set today. Imagine a treatment running over several weeks or even months...

Lincoln's heavy and regular intake of these blue mass pills as a remedy for his "melancholy" (what we would probably call depression today) is said to be the reason for his violent rage attacks and the erratic behaviour he was subject to over a period of years. He would clearly not have passed a drug test if Donald Trump had been around at the time to ask him for one...

A chicken foot for good luck? Or maybe I just don't get apothecary jokes.

It was also a time where doctors would bleed you to make you feel better (didn't exactly work out for George Washington). They weren't even all doctors, sometimes just barbers using leeches or simply cutting open a vein and draining the blood. This was when blackheads were thought to be tiny worms burrowing into your skin - just when you thought blackheads couldn't get any grosser - and when an ointment of sage, chamomile, bay leaves and red roses was thought to be efficient to treat breast cancer. I'm sure a lot of modern parents would have loved the "soothing syrup syringes" for babies containing pure morphine, sweet dreams guaranteed for the entire family.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary is located in Alexandria, Maryland, a short drive from DC.  For 5 dollars you will get the grand tour of this little museum.

Address and opening hours can be found here

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