“Miasma.” Owen, our tour guide at the Pharmacy Museum, gave a little shrug. “It’s a fun, spooky word and I recommend using it some time.” And he was right – in my mind, the word conjured up images of dank air swirling around flickering gas lamps, long tendrils grasping after people in Victorian clothes who scuttled away in fear.

In a way, that was New Orleans in the 19th-century, a time where miasma was blamed for the rampant sickness plaguing the city. Yellow fever, cholera, consumption, and venereal disease were everywhere. People were desperate to counteract “the miasma”. The military was even tasked with firing cannons into the nearby swamps in the hopes that it would disperse the miasma. Apparently, that was logical back then.

Unsurprisingly, the canons did not work. People still got sick in droves. “Lucky” for them, there were many remedy options. Many many options. This was because anyone, after a six month apprenticeship, could be a doctor – there were zero regulations, zero ethics. It wasn’t until 1804 that Louis J. Dufilho became the first person to pass the new American licensing exam, making his shop the first in the USA to prove its legitimacy. And it is this shop, today, that holds the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

When I arrived at the classic French Creole building, I was accidentally on time for the daily tour. I’d been thinking the tour would be boring and dry like many other tours I’ve been on in my travels so hoped to skip it. But was I ever glad the Universe conspired against me. Owen was a fantastic speaker, his dry humour making 19th-century New Orleans come to life in the crowded front room of the museum. The walls were covered with beautifully carved shelves, all holding intriguing antique bottles and various cabinets filled with scary looking implements. Owen’s passion for the subject matter was clearly evident as he walked us through the items on display.

Museum Highlights: Other Cultures

Owen acknowledged that the Pharmacy Museum was primarily Euro-centric. However, New Orleans, since its inception, has always been a multicultural city. It was a port city so people came from all over the world to settle here and they all brought their cultures and medicines. Interestingly enough, traditional medicines practiced by (for example) the Chinese or the Voodoo priestesses killed far less people because their medicines were based on herbs and actual knowledge. One example given by Owen was that white pharmacists would treat syphilis with mercury. Voodoo priestesses on the other hand would treat it by giving the afflicted person bread with mold on it and a glass of milk – the precursor to penicillin!

But not everyone trusted these traditions so pharmacists did brisk trade. In a city where there was standing water everywhere, poor sanitation was the norm, and any vice was easily accessible (New Orleans was the “Southern Babylon”), it was no wonder that disease was rampant and pharmacists skipped all the way to the bank.

Museum Highlights: Women

When you listen to Owen and read the various signs posted around the museum, you soon come to one startling conclusion – people back then were generally stoned, high, drunk, or going through withdrawal! An astonishing number of so-called medicines that date from this period involved narcotics, alcohol, or both. This was especially true for medicines marketed towards women (opium soaked tampons, anyone?) – it is no wonder so many women were “hysterical” and institutionalized! Another “funny not funny” example was something called Mother’s Quietness. It was prescribed to mothers for noisy children and it consisted of rum and opium. Lovely.

Museum Highlights: Status

Owen also showed us a number of tools used by doctors – the rule of thumb back then was that your doctor must give you drugs like opium, do bloodletting, or amputate something in order to actually be an “effective doctor”. In fact, you don’t want to have your surgery performed by a doctor with a clean blade – the dirtier his blade, the more experience he has! We also got to peer at bottles of pills coated in gold and silver. This was how rich people took their medication – the pills were gilded for no other reason than to show class. The irony is that since the body does not absorb gold or silver, the pills just passed through their systems meaning the medicine had no effect whatsoever.

Museum Highlights: Soda Fountains

Did you know that many sodas were invented to help people take their bitter tasting medicines? In the 1830s, pharmacists invented soda fountains where medicines were mixed with sweet syrup and sparkling water – bubbles were thought to “excite the system and cure disease”. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, and 7up were all invented by pharmacists! And no – Coke today no longer contains the coca plant as it was removed from the drink’s ingredients in 1903.

A Visit to the Pharmacy Museum

I highly recommend a visit to the Pharmacy Museum on your trip to New Orleans. The museum is generally marketed as something “unusual” to do on a visit to the city, making it seem like you should visit only if you have time.

Make. The. Time.

The first floor holds a wide variety of medical artifacts, hand-blown bottles, cosmetics, voodoo ‘potions’, a recreated pharmacist work area complete with old prescription files, and a fun leech jar! The second floor holds more medical artifacts, a typical upper class “sick room”, antique dental equipment, and the Rosenthal Spectacle Collection.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is an intriguing way to spend an hour or two. It is both funny and tragic at the same time. It will also make you wonder, what medical practices do we have today that will end up in a museum like this one, 200 years from now?