One of my favorite places in New Orleans has nothing to do with voodoo or food or letting the good times roll. Instead, it’s a small museum full of dusty poisons and wicked-looking metal tools. I couldn’t wait to introduce my daughter to it.
The storefront on Chartres held huge glass bottles with distended bellies full of bright red, blue, and yellow water. Those globes were plague indicators, designed to alert passersby when an epidemic struck the city. They date back to the 1820s when the building served as the apothecary shop and home of Louis J. Dulfilho, America’s first licensed pharmacist.
The ground floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is jammed with potions and pills from years past: lead baby bottle nipples, cocaine toothache pills, heroin syrup to quiet a cough. It’s a wonder that children survived to grow up, that every adult wasn’t addicted to some nostrum they purchased legally over the counter.
I wasn’t sure if my daughter, Sorrell, then nine years old, would be interested, but luckily the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. We looked over everything twice. She wanted to know what the medicines were supposed to do and what they really did – and why anyone would take things like these.
Which led us into a discussion of medicine in general. It’s hard to image that people have been doctoring each other since the Stone Age and we still don’t understand exactly how to fix our bodies when they break down. That said, Sorrell and I survived her premature birth only thanks to modern medicine. Three cheers for ultrasounds, fetal monitors, and magnesium sulfate, the poison that kept us both alive long enough for her to be born.
The second-floor rooms above the apothecary shop used to be the pharmacist’s living quarters. Now they host changing exhibits. Sorrell was most fascinated by a huge glass bowl full of little scraps of paper on which visitors had recorded the folk medicine traditions practiced in their families. I knew about tying a red string around your wrist to make arthritis go away, but I didn’t know all the uses of flannel and cod liver oil.
Other exhibits in the upstairs rooms have included the medicinal uses of absinthe (it was given to French soldiers to prevent worm infestation), the yellow fever plagues and how they shaped the history of New Orleans, and a collection of antique eyeglasses.
Out behind the museum lies a pretty little fountain courtyard full of medicinal herbs. The heat and humidity was rough on my San Francisco girl, but she didn’t want to leave the shade beneath the banana palms until I told her about the time we visited the Pharmacy Museum and saw them feed the leeches.
Leeches were used for centuries to “balance the humors” of the human body. People who were feverish would be bled to cool them off. At first, barber-surgeons used knives to open veins, but bloodletting could be done more carefully – in a more measured fashion – by leeches. Their saliva prevents the blood from coagulating after they pierce the skin with their needle-sharp teeth. The leeches in the aquarium were skinny threads of black that would swell as big as a finger and drop off when they had drunk their fill of blood. Sorrell was disappointed that we didn’t get to watch them feed on this visit.
I, for one, was counting my blessings, glad to be alive in the 21st century.
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is at
514 Chartres Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
It’s open on Tuesday to Friday from 10 am until 2 pm and on Saturday from 10 am until 5. Guided tours are given on Thursday and Friday at noon. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children. Kids under 6 are free.