Voodoo and opium: Valid med­i­cal choices in New Or­leans’ past

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY KATE SIL­VER travel@wash­post.com

It’s shortly af­ter the do­cent flashes an in­tra­mus­cu­lar sy­ringe from 1910 — but well be­fore he dis­cusses the blood­let­ting in­stru­ments and leeches — that the woman faints.

In her de­fense, it is rather stuffy and el­bow-to-el­bow at the New Or­leans Phar­macy Mu­seum, a two-level re­stored Cre­ole town­house in the French Quar­ter that was once the apothe­cary and res­i­dence of Louis J. Du­filho Jr., who be­came the coun­try’s first li­censed phar­ma­cist in 1816. Along with in­trigu­ing relics of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and cul­tural his­tory, we are also sur­rounded by the kind of in­gre­di­ents night ter­rors are made of: am­pu­ta­tion knives and saws, old sy­ringes and weathered lancets, an item called a ton­sil guil­lo­tine. While the do­cent, Ruth Ex, stands be­hind a glass dis­play case, rais­ing that sy­ringe, I hear a soft thump, fol­lowed by a col­lec­tive gasp.

No smelling salts are brought forth, and they aren’t needed. The fainter rises quickly and sheep­ishly ex­its with her friend. Ex im­plores the crowd to leave if they feel faint. “This is not the first time it’s hap­pened,” he says. And then he segues to talk­ing about pseu­do­science and some of the ques­tion­able the­o­ries of the 1800s. Like the idea that a woman’s brain and uterus were bat­tling for con­trol of her body.

“Peo­ple be­lieved that if women were to pur­sue read­ing or stren­u­ous ed­u­ca­tion, too much of their en­ergy would po­ten­tially go to their brain, which would cause at­ro­phy of the uterus, re­sult­ing in com­plete paral­y­sis, hys­te­ria or man­nish­ness,” he says. And then dead­pans: “So ob­vi­ously a the­ory in­vented by a man.”

All around us, the dark wooden shelves are packed with hand­blown apothe­cary bot­tles, tinc­tures and voodoo po­tions, with a mor­tar and pes­tle nearby for pul­ver­iz­ing and mix­ing the treat­ments. There’s an old soda foun­tain that once spouted sug­ary sweet drinks to mix with bit­ter medicines. (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up and Dr Pep­per all orig­i­nally had medic­i­nal pur­poses and were in­vented by phar­ma­cists.) Only a few items on dis­play came from this par­tic­u­lar apothe­cary: Toys, per­fume bot­tles, sy­ringes and a tooth­brush made from a pig’s rib bone were all found buried in the back yard, which is how garbage was dis­posed here in those days. The other in­stru­ments and vessels — in­clud­ing a large ceramic jar marked “LEECHES” — were once in use at a va­ri­ety of other phar­ma­cies from that era. Vis­i­tors can wan­der through the two-level mu­seum and see them on their own or opt for the once-a-day tour (Tues­day through Fri­day at 1 p.m., ad­mis­sion $5). The tour is well worth plan­ning your sched­ule around; it was one of the highlights of a re­cent trip.

The 45-minute tour goes well be­yond the his­tory of Du­filho and ex­plores health care, dis­ease, surgery and the cul­ture of New Or­leans in the 19th cen­tury. Con­trary to its nick­name, The Big Easy wasn’t such an easy place to live in 1816, which is the year Louisiana be­came the first state to re­quire li­cens­ing by health-care prac­ti­tion­ers. “New Or­leans was a very sick city. Cities in the 1800s were kind of no­to­ri­ously gross; they hadn’t really fig­ured out how to have peo­ple liv­ing in close quar­ters yet,” Ex says on the tour. The city had open-air gut­ters, and when it flooded sewage would run through the French Quar­ter. The pun­gent smell would prompt res­i­dents to place per­fume-soaked rags or “nosegays”— small bou­quets of flow­ers and herbs — over their noses.

Back then, phar­ma­cists car­ried out a lot of the du­ties that we as­so­ciate with doc­tors to­day. They would di­ag­nose pa­tients, make house calls, im­port patented medicines from Europe, give in­jec­tions and, if called upon, extract teeth and do blood­let­tings. In ru­ral ar­eas, they might per­form am­pu­ta­tions. They would also create many of the med­i­ca­tions and herbal con­coc­tions sold in their shop.

Those treat­ments were more likely to treat symp­toms than cure dis­ease. That might have meant a pre­scrip­tion for opium, heroin or whiskey to get a pa­tient feel­ing spry again. For men­strual cramps and dur­ing child­birth, women were pre­scribed tam­pons soaked in opium (to take away pain) and bel­ladonna (a re­lax­ant). Chil­dren were even given nar­cotics: Colicky or teething ba­bies could have been pre­scribed some­thing called God­frey’s Cor­dial, a.k.a. Mother’s Quiet­ness, which was a mix of wine and opium. “It was a best­seller,” Ex says.

The cause of most ill­nesses was largely a mys­tery at the time. Germ the­ory wasn’t widely un­der­stood, and peo­ple won­dered if dis­eases, such as yel­low fever, came from a mi­asma of swamp gas lingering above. Ex says lo­cals would shoot can­nons in the air in hopes of dis­si­pat­ing what­ever it was that was caus­ing peo­ple to get sick.

Not long af­ter I tour the mu­seum, I call Liz Sher­man, its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, to learn a bit more. I ask her her fa­vorite items, and she says that the leech jar and blood­let­ting in­stru­ments rank high. “If some­one’s sick, they thought the per­son’s blood was un­healthy, so by bleed­ing you get rid of that un­healthy blood and the per­son gen­er­ates new healthy blood. You can kind of un­der­stand the con­cept, although on an­other level it sounds com­pletely nuts,” she says.

Sher­man points out that voodoo also played an im­por­tant role in phar­ma­cies, par­tic­u­larly in the South. Voodoo in the 19th cen­tury was frowned on by much of so­ci­ety, but that didn’t stop Euro­peantrained phar­ma­cists from copy­ing some of the po­tions and sell­ing them. (Like “Love Po­tion No. 9.”) The mu­seum has jars with con­coc­tions such as “Love Draw­ing Pow­der,” “Get Away Pow­der” and “God­dess of Evil Pow­der.” In fact, Sher­man says, peo­ple treated with voodoo may have had bet­ter odds at heal­ing, be­cause those reme­dies fre­quently were herbal. “A Euro­pean-trained phar­ma­cist or physi­cian would have treated a pa­tient suf­fer­ing from syphilis — very com­mon in the 19th cen­tury — with mer­cury in­jec­tions and blood­let­ting,” Sher­man says. “If you went to see a voodoo prac­ti­tioner, he or she would rec­om­mend eat­ing moldy bread, which is the base for peni­cillin.”

Look­ing back on it all — baby­bot­tle nip­ples made of lead, mer­cury in­jec­tions, ar­senic pills, blood­let­ting and nar­cotics ga­lore — Sher­man re­flects on the re­silience of the human race.

“It’s amaz­ing when you think of peo­ple’s sur­vival,” she says. Sil­ver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twit­ter at @K8Sil­ver.


TOP: A va­ri­ety of chem­i­cals, herbs and other in­gre­di­ents fill bot­tles and jars at the New Or­leans Phar­macy Mu­seum. RIGHT: Vin­tage glass eyes on dis­play at the mu­seum. Even in the 19th cen­tury, phar­ma­cists sold a vast ar­ray of health­care prod­ucts.

BE­LOW: Lo­cated in the French Quar­ter, the mu­seum’s two-story build­ing was once the apothe­cary and res­i­dence of Louis J. Du­filho Jr., who be­came the coun­try’s first li­censed phar­ma­cist in 1816.

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