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