On a recent Saturday, we visited the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Alexandria. If you are visiting Washington DC for the first time, this probably isn’t going to be on your list of things to see. But if you are in the area or just like to go places that are slightly off the beaten track, this is a fantastic little museum.
The building was owned by the same family for 150 years and then abandoned in the early 1930’s, probably due to some kind of misfortune. Their misfortune has turned out to be fortunate for us as they left the place pretty much as it was in 1933. The glass jars on the shelves still hold the same powders and herbs that they held then. The City of Alexandria acquired the museum in 2005 and is still in the process of discovering and cataloguing exactly what is there.
From a historical perspective, it’s neat on multiple levels. Since the business was owned by the same family for so long there are ledgers showing Robert E. Lee visiting and a note from Martha Washington ordering castor oil to be sent over to Mt. Vernon. It’s also a living example of a 1930’s era business. We were able to visit the second level as well which was a storage room and the room where most of the medicines were mixed. The museum is not shy about highlighting the resemblance to Harry Potter’s potions class with the drawers for mandrake root and dragon’s blood (a resin from this tree). They even offer potions birthday parties.
We were there partly for a demonstration of 1700’s science by a local high school reenactment society. That was reasonably well done and a fun extra. However, I was most impressed by the medical history packed away in those walls. It’s easy now to dismiss some of the remedies used back then but I was struck by the lost art those jars and drawers represented. The knowledge of healing herbs and the ability to mix medicines is not very well known today. And yet, not even 100 years ago, instead of scribbling out a prescription for an antiacid or pain killer I might have told my patient to go down to the apothecary for a tincture of dragon’s blood.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for modern medicine and not overly nostalgic for the good old days. But I do think we’ve probably lost some good knowledge as we’ve embraced the modern.