A French immigrant was the U.S.’s first modern pharmacist.

The Craft That Cured a City

By Karen Schwartz | Photography by Nils Ericson

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New Orleans Pharmacy

The Nation's First Pharmacist

Before there were pharmacies there were apothecaries, which could be run by anyone after a brief apprenticeship. But that meant little in the way of regulation or standardization of treatments. In 1804, Louisiana changed that. It became the first state to require licensing for pharmacists, and in 1816 French immigrant Louis Dufilho Jr. became America’s first licensed pharmacist. He opened his pharmacy in 1823, making medicine and science accessible to a fast-growing city as it battled devastating disease. “Science” of course can be a relative term: This pharmacy, like others at the time, had medicines much like we use today, as well as leeches, opium, Voodoo remedies and a soda fountain designed to help make the medicine go down.

The 1800s were the right time

The 19th century was a turning point in medicine. The discovery of surgical anesthesia and the germ theory of disease allowed physicians and their patients to enter the realm of modern medicine. The newly standardized pharmacies went along with this more scientifically–led approach. “The development of pharmacies out of the anything–goes world of apothecaries professionalized the industry and led to a higher standard of practice,” says Elizabeth Sherman, executive director of the museum now made of the remains of Dufilho’s pharmacy.

New Orleans Pharmacy facade

…And New Orleans was the right place

Once an integral part of the French Empire, New Orleans was American’s fastest growing city by the mid-1800s, a proverbial melting pot of 25 nationalities, among them slaves and free people. But there were downsides. The trade ships that made New Orleans a prosperous hub also brought with them life-threatening disease, including the deadly Yellow Fever. New Orleans swamps were a fertile ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes, and Yellow Fever would eventually ravage the city, killing one in six people—Louis Dufilho Jr.’s brother among them.

Stephen Houin in Pharmacy

Ask a pharmacist

“The pharmacist was more like a doctor today,” says Stephen Houin, a Dufilho descendant. “People would go to them to diagnose the problem and treat it accordingly.” Dufilho brought his education with him. Born in southern France, Dufilho had studied at the College of Pharmacy in Paris before leaving his native home in 1800 to come to New Orleans. His training served him well. When Yellow Fever later struck, he took a more scientific approach to the treatment of Yellow Fever by using quinine, found in the bark of a Peruvian tree. “They were the front line on fighting any of these diseases,” Houin says. “It makes me very proud that that same blood that ran through his veins, runs through mine.”

New Orleans Pharmacy

The medicines

In Dufilho’s day, pharmacists mixed medicines from scratch using plants, minerals, animals and even insects as ingredients. Mortars and pestles were used to crush and blend dried herbs which were made into pills, cachets (wafers made of rice flour that were the predecessors of today’s gelatin capsules), liquids, plasters and injectable medicines. Passers-by had no doubt about what was inside: The front windows displayed house multi-tiered bottled of colored water. These bottles, known as “show globes” had been used for centuries (possibly as early as the 1300s) as a symbol for pharmacies—similar to a barber’s pole.

New Orleans Pharmacy old Coca Cola fountain
New Orleans Pharmacy old Coca Cola fountain

Have a coke and a cure

A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, but, as early as the 1830s, because it was believed to have curative powers, American pharmacists were also using soda. By the 1880s, the drugstore soda fountain had become an American institution. The Cokes, Pepsi and 7-ups were still enjoy today originally had medicinal purposes and were invented by pharmacists. Made of Italian rose and black marble and dating back to around 1855, the museum’s soda fountain is in working condition and, were it not for its lead pipes, could still be used today.

New Orleans Pharmacy interior
New Orleans Pharmacy interior

The old ways paved the new way

Nineteenth century medicine was clearly on the cusp, including some practices that may seem strange today. For example, leeches, segmented worms that suck blood, were used to cleanse the body of what was thought to be “poisoned” or excess blood. People could purchase them at a pharmacy, then take them to a physician to be applied. While most people in the United States today would cringe at the thought of this, leeches have made a modern medical comeback: Some doctors now use the worms to help reattach severed fingers or to treat potentially fatal circulation disorders.

The New Orleans Pharmacy
The New Orleans Pharmacy

Remedies you won’t find today

The pharmacy museum also features one of the 19th century’s most commonly prescribed drugs—opium. In the 1800s, opium was widely deployed for many everyday purposes. Morphine, laudanum and even heroin were all used—not just as painkillers and sedatives, but also as anti-diaherrials—and readily available over the counter. Towards the later half of the century, the concept of drug addiction began to be understood, but narcotics remained available without a prescription until 1914.

New Orleans Pharmacy interior

See it for yourself

Dufilho’s pharmacy has been largely recreated in the classic Creole-American townhouse in New Orleans in which he worked and lived. The building not only still stands, but the pharmacy has been fully restored, offering visitors a window into what medical treatment was actually like nearly 200 years ago.

Dufliho himself was not content to merely operate his pharmacy. He joined the Howard Association, a precursor to the Red Cross, which went on to treat over 130,000 victims of disease—including the Yellow Fever which had claimed his brother.

French immigrant—and New Orleans’ first pharmacist—Louis Dufilho treats victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic.

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