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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: Apothecaries, Drug Stores and Pharmacy in New Orleans

New Orleans has a rich history of apothecary and pharmacy, as the first city to license pharmacists in America and develop healing cocktails bitters.

New Orleans history has accounted for a lot of firsts in this country, from the first cocktail to the first licensed pharmacist in the United States, and surprisingly, those two things are very closely related. Even in colonial times, towns in the New World had apothecaries, and New Orleans played a significant role in the development of modern pharmacies and drugstores, from its early apothecaries to the modern College of Pharmacy at Xavier University of Louisiana.

new orleans history
Exterior sign at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (Photo by Edward Branley)

Fast-forward from the earliest mentions of medicinal substances (India in the 6th Century BC) to the Crescent City at the beginning of the 19th Century when the Americans took charge of New Orleans (and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase) in 1803 and William C.C. Claiborne took over as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. In 1804, Claiborne approved an order that established a licensing exam for pharmacists. The Louisiana legislature re-affirmed this with a law after becoming a state in 1812. In 1816, Louis Dufilho, Jr., a resident of New Orleans, passed an exam administered by a board of experienced professionals at the Cabildo, becoming the first licensed pharmacist in the United States.

After receiving his license, Dufilho went to work at his brother’s apothecary on Toulouse Street. In 1823, he built a Creole cottage at 514 Chartres Street. He operated his apothecary on the first floor, using the second and third floors as a family residence. Dufilho ran his business on Chartres for over 30 years, returning to France with his family in 1855. The building changed ownership numerous times for almost a century before finally being acquired by the City of New Orleans in the 1940s. Plans were laid to turn the cottage into a museum, and the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum opened in 1950. The upper floors were fully restored by 1986, expanding the museum’s exhibit space.

new orleans history
Alum grinder, located on the second floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. (Photo by Edward Branley)

In addition to a splendid collection of pharmacy cabinets, tools, bottles, jars, and other tools of the trade, the museum contains a number of exhibits featuring such items as “patent” medicines (such as Hadacol), as well as exhibits on herbs and plants as drugs and the role of alcohol as a medicine. One cabinet of “patent” medicines on the second floor displays several bottles of Peychaud’s Bitters, as well as an elaborate sipping cup. Antoine Amédée Peychaud was an apothecary who created his bitters products in 1830, claiming they would heal a wide range of ailments, but the most famous use of Peychaud’s bitters is in the Sazerac cocktail, invented around 1850. To add to the list of early pharmaceutical remedies, Voodoo potions were sold on the down-low in New Orleans pharmacies, and the recipes were taught to the pharmacists by local voodoo priestesses. The museum is a wonderful account of how organic the origins of pharmacies were and a great comparison to how far things have come in the field.

Not only is the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum a treat for those interested in the history of the profession in the U.S., but the building that houses the museum is a fascinating example of “Creole cottage” New Orleans architecture. The building is different from many Spanish Colonial homes in the French Quarter in that it’s a simple house facing the street. The property has a courtyard, but it is surrounded by a brick wall; the rear of the property included slave quarters and a separate apartment for the oldest son of the family. Since the first floor was retail space, the family entered and exited the cottage via the carriageway next to the storefront.

new orleans history
1968 photo of K&B Number 2, Canal and Dauphine Streets, across from the Maison Blanche Building. (Photo courtesy of streetcarmike.com)

As the city grew and immigrants from other European countries added to the gumbo that is New Orleans culture, members of those ethnic communities often set up their own apothecaries and pharmacies. In the late 1890s, Gustav Katz opened up a drugstore on the corner of Jackson and St. Charles Avenues in Uptown New Orleans. Katz teamed up with Memphis transplant Sidney Besthoff and opened the first Katz and Besthoff Drugstore at 732 Canal Street. They weren’t alone; S. J. Shwartz opened a pharmacy in his new Maison Blanche building in 1912. Waterbury’s opened several stores on Canal Street in the 1940s, and Walgreens opened their store on Canal and Baronne.

new orleans history
Ribbon cutting ceremony for the Quatar Pharmacy Pavillion at Xavier University of Louisiana, October 15, 2010. (Photo courtesy of College of Pharmacy, Xavier University of Louisiana)

Formal study of pharmacy came to New Orleans in 1970, when Xavier University of Louisiana opened its College of Pharmacy. One of only two pharmacy schools in Louisiana (the other is located in the northern part of the state at University of Louisiana-Monroe), Xavier’s College of Pharmacy was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2006, the Emirate of Qatar donated $17.5 million to help rehabilitate the university, as well as construct a new building for the pharmacy school. The Qatar Pharmacy Pavilion opened in 2010, adding 60,000 square feet to the College of Pharmacy’s presence on the XULA campus. Even though the pharmacy business is dominated by nationally-owned chains these days, New Orleans doesn’t forget its past. We still have fond memories of “K&B Purple,” the soda fountain at Waterbury’s, and the old-style apothecaries of the past.

new orleans history
Coca Cola dispenser on display at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. (Photo courtesy of Edward Branley)

Take a look at our New Orleans Pharmacy Museum episode of GoNOLA TV below and make sure to add it to your next New Orleans itinerary!

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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