Planning a trip to New Orleans? Add the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum to your bucket list!
You won't want to miss this one-of-a-kind, historic museum on your next trip.
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Are you're looking for a French Quarter activity that's totally unique and little off the beaten track? Then, you have to visit the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.
I went recently, and to be honest, I wasn't expecting much. It's small, and it only cost $5 to get in. But it ended up being one of the best things I've ever done in New Orleans.
Okay, I know what you're thinking ... the history of pharmacy doesn't sound like the most exciting thing ever. But this is one New Orleans museum that you have to add to your bucket list. Keep reading to find out why you need to visit this quirky French Quarter museum!
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
This one-of-a-kind museum tells the history of pharmacy and healthcare in New Orleans. And it's truly fascinating stuff!
Although the field of pharmacy is highly regulated today, back in the day pretty much anyone could call themselves a pharmacist. There was little to no training required, and few people had any real understanding of what actually caused disease. So many of the methods early pharmacists employed were useless at best and extremely painful or toxic at worst.
That all changed in 1816, when Louisiana became the first U.S. state to require aspiring pharmacists to pass an oral exam. The Pharmacy Museum tells the story of early days of pharmacy, and of Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., America's first licensed pharmacist.
Pharmacists played a huge role in their patients health in these early days. They acted more like doctors, diagnosing their clients and treating them accordingly.
Main Floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
The museum has two levels. On the first floor, you'll find a recreation of Dufilho's apothecary shop, which is where he set up his business in 1823.
Dufilho sold the building to Dr. Joseph Dupas in 1855. Apparently Dupas was something of hack, and after he died that building was looted and sat vacant until the museum opened in 1950.
Because of this, the majority of the cabinets, bottles, and equipment didn't come from Dufilho's apothecary, although much of it came from another pharmacy that was located down the street.
During the 1800s, life in New Orleans was pretty rough.
Sanitation standards were low, the weather was hot and humid, and the city flooded frequently. As sailors and other workers visited the port city, they brought a wide range of deadly diseases with them ... cholera, smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever were all common.
According to the Louisiana State Museum:
The death rate in New Orleans ranged from a low of 36 per 1,000 in the late 1820s to a high of 1 in 15 during the summer of 1853. Over 12,000 people died of yellow fever in New Orleans that year, with still more deaths in rural areas in south Louisiana, marking the single highest annual death rate of any state during the entire nineteenth century. Because people died faster than graves could be dug, the popular saying was that pretty soon people would have to dig their own graves.
So as you can imagine, pharmacists played a key role in the survival of the city. Although their services were mainly available to middle class and wealthy white people.
Walking around the museum is like stepping back in time!
The walls are lined with beautiful cabinets filled with medical equipment, patent medicines, voodoo potions, compounding supplies, and more.
It's fun to peek into the cabinets and check everything out. According to our tour guide, the bottles still contain the remains of their original contents.
Pharmacy Museum Courtyard
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum has two flours. As you exit the first floor from the back, you'll enter an enclosed courtyard.
Buildings in the French Quarter were built very close together, and many people entered their homes via narrow passageways which led to secluded courtyards.
These courtyards served a number of purposes. First, construction of the French Quarter's sewage system did not begin until 1897, and prior to that, a lot of the waste ended up in the streets (eww). This contributed to much of the disease that plagued residents, and it just plain smelled bad. So courtyards provided a respite from the rancid streets.
And these private living spaces also housed smaller buildings, such as kitchens, stables, and quarters for slaves and other domestic help.
Dufilho likely used the courtyard to grow medicinal herbs. According to our guide, the only original Dufilho items from the museum's exhibits (such as syringes and bottles), were found buried in an outhouse pit in the building's courtyard.
Second Floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
When Louis J. Dufilho, Jr. (the original pharmacist) owned the building, his family lived on the second level. That changed in 1855, when Dufilho sold the pharmacy to Dr. Joseph Dupas.
Upon taking over, Dupas turned the second level of the building into a medical practice. There are rumors that Dupas performed medical experiments on slaves, voodoo rites, and took part in other nefarious activities.
Dupas died in 1867 due to complications of syphilis, but it's rumored that he still haunts the museum after closing.
As you walk up the stairs to the second floor, you'll pass a few colorful signs.
The second floor has a number of interesting displays.
One of the rooms is arranged as a sick room, and you'll also see wheelchairs, doctors’ bags, and a birthing table. I didn't get a good picture of any of this, so you'll just have to visit and see it in person.
You'll also find shelves holding medical scales and other artifacts, like those above.
And there's a collection of bottles that were excavated locally and donated to the museum.
There's also a really cool collection of vintage spectacles, ophthalmic instruments, and texts that chronicle the history of vision care from 1750 to the 1950s. It's on permanent loan from Dr. J. William Rosenthal, who is a local ophthalmologist, author, and ophthalmic consultant for the Smithsonian Institution.
With all of the shopping choices we have today, it's interesting to see how similar these glasses all look to each other!
And then there are the glass eyes! Can you imagine popping these in on the daily?
The pair below was made by Ludwig Müller-Uri, a glassblower from Germany. His use of glass was considered a major advancement
Read more about the history of ocular prosthesis here. It's pretty fascinating stuff.
As you wander around the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, you'll spot lots of interesting signs.
In addition to crazy potions, herbs, and other suspect methods, alcohol was also commonly used as an antiseptic, disinfectant, and antidote for many illnesses and everyday maladies.
People living in the 19th century were often drunk and/or high, which you learn more about below!
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum Tour
Your museum ticket includes a free tour starting at 1:00 PM (every day except Saturday). Make sure to time your visit to coincide with the tour, because it really brings the museum exhibits to life.
Our tour guide was so funny! He shared all sorts of interesting tidbits that you'd miss touring the museum on your own, tons of New Orleans history, and many disturbing stories about the early days of pharmacy.
During the tour, you'll learn why New Orleans was plagued by disease and how early pharmaceutical treatments were either unhelpful or downright toxic on their own.
Did you know that the concept that germs cause diseases wasn't widely accepted until the late 1800's? Before that, people thought that bad air (or miasma) caused disease. And New Orleans had lots of bad air!
To treat diseases, pharmacists mixed their own concoctions of drugs.
On the counter below, you can see an wood pill cutter (it looks similar to a small cutting board). Tools like this helped standardize medical care.
Dubious Medical Treatments
Know what is bound to make you glad you live in the 21st century? Leeches!
Bloodletting with leeches was used to treat issues ranging from minor (acne) to severe (amputation). And interestingly, it was often barbers who administered this treatment, not pharmacists.
If you're not feeling totally sick already, you can read more about the history of bloodletting here. And if you want to be really grossed out, you may be interested to know that leeches are once again being used in medical care ... they are even FDA approved!
In addition to leeches, pharmacists commonly treated patients with substances, like mercury, that we now know are toxic.
If your sickness didn't kill you, the treatment just might!
Opiates were also commonly used to treat illnesses. Pharmacists administered opium and other highly addictive substances for a wide range of physical and mental concerns, as well as everyday issues like menstrual cramps and noisy babies.
As a result, addiction was common in the 1800s.
Read more about America's 19th centuary opiate addiction here ... it's pretty interesting, especially when you consider that the U.S. is facing a similar drug crisis today.
Cosmetics, Perfumes, and Other Toiletries
Women didn't visit the pharmacy just to get their weekly dose of opium. They also stopped by to purchase cosmetics, perfume, and other toiletries.
Of course, these products often contained toxic ingredients, too.
Lead, arsenic, and other poisonous ingredients sound perfect for slathering all over your face, right?
Pharmacy Museum Soda Fountain
Before you leave the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, make sure to check out the old fashioned soda fountain. It's located right by the door, and you'll see a portrait of Louis J. Dufilho, Jr. just to the left.
Did you know that the invention of many sodas (such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and 7 Up) is intertwined with pharmaceutical history?
Sodas were created to disguise the bitter taste of medicines pharmacists administered. The sugary drinks contained ingredients like cocaine, caffeine, and lithium ... the perfect way to add some pep to your day!
These sweet concoctions were used to treat everything from indigestion to impotence to headaches, as well as various psychological disorders.
Visiting the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
I hope you enjoyed reading about the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum! It's one of my favorite things I've ever done NOLA ... make sure to add it to your New Orleans bucket list.
Here are a few details to help plan your visit:
- Location: The Pharmacy Museum is located at 514 Chartres Street in the French Quarter.
- Cost: Admission to the museum is $5 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, and free for children under six.
- Hours: The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. It is closed on Sunday and Monday.
- Tour: A guided tour, which starts at 1:00 PM, is included in the ticket price. The museum is interesting to explore on our own, but the tour helps bring the history to life ... do not miss it! Please note that there is no tour on Saturday.
- Website: Visit the museum's website for more information on history, exhibits, museum membership, and more.
- Should you bring your kids? New Orleans life in the 1800s was dirty and disease filled, and its residents were often quite promiscuous. Some of the topics covered in the guided tour include plagues like Yellow Fever, death, STDs, prostitutes, voodoo, drug use and abuse, child birth and other women's issues, etc. ... just something to consider if you plan to bring your kids. There were children on the tour I took. They seemed to enjoy it (there are lots of funny "eww" moments), and I don't think anyone was permanently scarred in the process. 😉
Other Things to Do in New Orleans
Now that you know where to eat (priorities!), you can start planning the rest of your trip.
Start by reading my New Orleans Travel Guide ... it has everything you need to know to plan your trip. Then, check out some of my favorite things to do in NOLA:
- Visit a museum. There are so many amazing museums worth visiting in this historic city. I especially love the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, the WWII Museum in the Warehouse District, and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
- Tour a city of the dead. New Orleans is known for its beautiful cemeteries. Take a self-guided walking tour of my favorite, Lafayette No. 1 in the Garden District.
- Admire the unique architecture. Speaking of the Garden District, you can't visit NOLA without viewing its jawdropping homes. A walking tour of the Garden District is the best way take them all in.
- Experience Mardi Gras. A trip to NOLA during Mardi Gras is on many bucket lists. But if you're traveling to NOLA at another time of year, you can still enjoy the fun at Mardi Gras World.
- Escape the tourists. It's never not touristy in New Orleans. Need a break from all the people? Take the ferry across the river to quiet, charming Algiers Point.
- Deal with the crazy weather. New Orleans is notorious for its bad weather ... it's often hot and rainy, maybe both! Here's how you can beat the heat in summer and here are the best ways to spend a rainy day.
- Grab a bite to eat. If you're traveling with a vegetarian, this can be a tricky city. Check out my favorite New Orleans vegetarian-friendly restaurants that will please your whole group (veg or not!)
- Save a buck. NOLA can get expensive, but not every activity has to be super pricey. Here are my favorite free things to do in New Orleans.
I also love Lonely Planet guide books. And they have ebooks now, so you don't have to lug heavy books on your trip!
Where to Stay in New Orleans
I've stayed at a number of hotels in New Orleans. Here are a few I've returned to again and again:
- Astor Crowne Plaza French Quarter - I like this hotel for its convenient location on Canal Street, just around the corner from (but thankfully, not on) Bourbon Street. One thing to note: valet parking gets very busy here on Sundays during check-out time. If you're checking out on a Sunday, consider leaving well before check-out time, otherwise you may face a long wait.
- Chateau LeMoyne French Quarter - This is a Holiday Inn, but it feels more like a boutique hotel. The rooms have many unique elements, and there's a pretty pool area. It's located on a quieter street, yet the French Quarter is just outside its doors.
- Hotel Indigo Garden District - Want to escape the craziness of the French Quarter? Stay in the beautiful Garden District instead. This lovely hotel is steps from the St. Charles Streetcar, making it a super convenient starting point for exploring the Garden District, French Quarter, and Uptown.
What is the most unique thing you've done in New Orleans?