A walk back in time

After many years of mentioning it, my husband and I finally visited the Country Doctor Museum. Off the beaten path in a nearby town, the museum consists of three small buildings, one of which is a combination of two actual 19th century doctors’ offices. The museum began as a memorial to rural physicians, expanding over time to include the nursing profession, home remedies, and the apothecary. It now houses an impressive collection of artifacts from the 18th to early 20th centuries.

I expected to learn things. I didn’t know, for example, that this is the oldest museum in the United States dedicated to the history of rural healthcare, or that it’s been taken over by my alma mater, East Carolina University. The docent said: “That saved us during COVID. We had the funding to reopen. Many private-funded museums could not.”

I mourned the loss of museums that had to close for good as we crossed the threshold of the apothecary… where an otherworldly, unanticipated, delicious strangeness awaited on that side of the portal…

A mammoth cabinet of gleaming cherry wood with ornate scrollwork, sunbursts, and Victorian spindles runs the length of the left wall. On its shelves, behind glass doors, stand hundreds of large jars bearing white labels and names of their contents—assorted dried herbs, powders, and liquids—in large black script: Crocus, Cloves, Mace, Valeria, Aq. Rosa., Pond’s Ext., Sol. Benedict Quantitative, Lotio Pilocart Morrow, Pepsengia. Some labels look new; others appear to be timeworn, the lettering nearly illegible. The docent speaks in a low, unmodulated voice about paregoric, opium, mercury, and poisons that were often part of remedies mixed by the apothecary, dispensed to a largely illiterate population which couldn’t read labels. In order to prevent overdose, some of the pills were fashioned into tiny black coffins.

As I look at these coffin-pills, trying to imagine ingesting such a thing, the docent points to the show globes in the cabinet. Tall, decanter-like vessels of different-colored liquids—green, yellow, blue, red—stacked upon each other in rounded triple towers. They seem art deco or like something from the 1960s. “Show globes are an official symbol, like the striped pole is to the barber,” says the docent. “People entering a town would know this is where to find the apothecary. The show globes were displayed in the shop’s front window, and every color had a meaning. The apothecary kept a recipe for mixing dye in water and a guide for when to display certain colors. Red, for example, would warn travelers that there’s widespread sickness in this town, an epidemic…”

I turn to see a large, single-tier show globe with antique bronze trim sitting alone on a pedestal behind me. Full to the brim with bright red, transparent liquid.

Of course, I think. The docent is wearing a mask. I wonder if the all the museum guides came by cover of night in March of 2020 to mix this red solution. And if it will remain red until COVID-19 makes its full departure.

Hanging show globes were sometimes mounted in the apothecary’s shop window.

The docent is now speaking of bloodletting and leeches.

There are, in fact, live leeches on display. They’re floating contentedly in a clear glass bowl of water beside a large vase decorated with a delicate floral pattern…along with the word LEECHES in utterly incongruous, glorious gilt adorning a black banner.

The museum’s leech jar is very similar to this, only with a sweet pattern of tiny pink flowers and vines.

“The apothecary kept leeches in leech jars such as this…” the docent is saying. “It was advertising. The fancier the jar, the better the quality, people believed…”

I’m awed by the jar, that it was designed solely to hold worms. Albeit important ones… and I read once, somewhere, that leeches are amazing escape artists: A more recent druggist had a leech that chewed through a modest gauze lid covering; he found the escapee several days later, lounging on the turntable of his record player.

The docent continues: “Leeches are still in use today. We had a plastic surgeon visit once. He told us of reattaching someone’s ear and using a leech there to increase the blood flow for healing…leeches are often used when fingers are reattached…you don’t feel the leech, of course…”

We are about to move into the next room where there’s a real human skull and kits of amputation tools from the Civil War era, but I want to linger here, I have a thousand questions about the tinctures and remedies and practicesand I want to study the magnificent 1700s era painting on the right wall, above the counter where the apothecary would make pills by mixing powders and dough, rolling and cutting with a pill-roller. The artwork depicts Christ as an apothecary, with elaborate calligraphy in old German. It presides over the whole room.

But time does not wait; it moves on and so must I… prying myself away from the painting and jars and show globes, I content myself with the knowledge that a healing-herb garden waits at the end of the tour. I hurry into the next room just to make the intriguing discovery that I am now standing in the office of a Victorian doctor whose not-very-common surname is my own maiden name.

What a peculiar sense of belonging…and, I think, beginning, of something I’ve yet to name.

*******

I plan to write more about the painting on Thursday.

You can visit the Country Doctor Museum online to learn more and to view many fascinating artifacts.

16 thoughts on “A walk back in time

  1. This tour of the museum was quite interesting for me because one of my MA’s was in Museum Studies. It is my sad opinion that museums will fade into our collective memory because their static presentation cannot compete with live internet which eliminates the need for travel to these fine institutions. 🥲

    – Jill
    PDXDRAGONFLY

    Liked by 1 person

    • I share in your concern (and sadness) about museums fading, all the wisdom and lore and rich history being lost even more than it already has been. I’ve been almost as fascinated by responses to this post and its sequel as I have been by the tour itself. And you’re right – just as with teaching, there’s no replacing the dynamic of the actual in-person experience. Well-said, Jill.

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  2. Fran, thank you for taking me back in time. Your tour was totally fascinating. I think you have a calling as a virtual docent. I could have listened to the background history you provided for much longer. When I was a reading specialist/coach (when we were not called that), I created a historical project for the school. We were a microsociety during the days of school reform programs. I had every 4th grade class studying the history of daily life in NYS and creating a mini-museum in the school. We even had an apothecary shop with a cabinet made by the carpenters and stocked with antique bottles, etc. from early days in our state. It was special, content-filled and a great learning experience. This museum you shared has given me a glance background. Thanks for the journey back in time.

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    • What a fantastic project, Carol – I can imagine how much learning those students did and how much they loved it. There is nothing like being able to step back in time for even the briefest moment, to sense life as it was then – and the apothecary artifacts are full of timeless wonder.

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  3. Wow, Fran, this is fascinating. I wonder what this “something I’ve yet to name” will be? You have explained the details of the museum with such beautiful and rich detail. I am intrigued now to go to the online museum. So glad it survived the pandemic and has support now through the university.

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    • It delights me that the Musem inspires you and others to do some of your own searching, Denise – I want to explore more myself. We shall see what comes of this inspiration!

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  4. The details in this description make the whole place come alive. I sense a poem somewhere in those lists and your impressions of the space – and I love the ending, the attempts to name the feeling – maybe part of the poem? Hmm…. Also, the red show globe – of course! Now I kind of want to go to this museum. I wonder if it’s on my way home to SC?

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    • It’s a little museum, not too far off the path of your travels, Amanda; not a lengthy experience and well worth the perusal. A good way to stretch your legs AND your mind! It’s open Tuesday-Friday until 3:00, something we kept forgetting, which is one reason it took us so long to visit (not open on the weekend, closing early on weekdays). Now that I’ve been, I want to go back. We shall see where this inspiration leads – and safe travels to you!

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  5. I kept reading show globe and thinking you meant snow globe! But the explanation made it clear that this was a show globe, a new term for me. Red for the pandemic, love your supposition of when it might have been filled and how it might stay until COVID-19 is eradicated. So much to learn from your visit to the museum. And now my interest in genealogy makes me wonder if you could be related to this Victorian doctor. Looking forward to Thursday’s post!

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    • The show globes (not snow globes, lol, I see how your brain would have grappled, Ramona) were so compelling. That red one reminded me that the past is never far away, that history does indeed repeat itself (begging the question: And what have we learned?). I have to say that the doctor with my family surname appears to have the exact same eyes as my grandfather and his children, the oldest of whom was my dad…the doctor isn’t a direct ancestor, as I know the family tree, but his locale and those eyes make me wonder about familial connections… more research calls! Many thanks for all your thoughts.

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  6. This is all so fascinating to me. I now have about twelve different things that I need to learn more about. Right now. The show globes and their history, the current use of leeches in medicine, the online resources for the museum…I can see why you wanted to linger. =)

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  7. Another shared fascination; I remember seeing similar items in museums, the names and whereabouts escaping me as we were lucky to visit so many in our childhood. Reading your descriptions of the jars and bottles is a reminder of just how far we’ve come in medicine and science…and the red show globe a caveat, that no matter how far we progress, we are still but frail humans subject to falling prey to the smallest microbes. I think that’s the part of this pandemic that irks me the most–the hubris of those who don’t take such danger seriously.

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    • I found the red globe haunting and so significant, in that the past is never far away – and that we can, and should, keep learning from it. Hubris is an excellent word, Chris – it abounds all around us, dangerously, indeed.

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