While vacationing in Canada recently I happened to notice a sign on an old building: Niagara Apothecary. It was intriguing enough to draw me inside, where I found an authentic museum restoration of an 1869 pharmacy. Among other things it houses an eye-catching collection of colorful bottles and jars that once contained various medicines.
These range from large glazed cobalt blue jars to green carboys with clear ground glass stoppers, as well as small clear glass tincture bottles with narrow necks. All of these being hand-blown glass, their appearance is somewhat irregular and not uniform from one to another. There was also a large white-glazed leech jar that used to contain the bloodsuckers used to extract blood from a patient.
Since my 3rd great-grandfather Gideon Lincecum was practicing medicine in Texas around the time when this pharmacy was in operation, the museum gave me an insight into the ways he would have stocked the medicines he used.
In his autobiography Gideon wrote as follows about one batch of medicines: “I carried the medicines home, compounded and made up all the preparations, put them in clear glass tincture bottles, put on fancy labels and set them up on some shelves I had made for them. They looked very pretty and the taste and smell of them indicated that they were potent medicines. Next I compounded and put into nice spice jars all the powdered preparations.”
His career as a physician took place at a time when two contrasting systems of medicine were contending for dominance. Some of his patients clung to the “old school” or allopathic system based on drugs that were strong and harsh, while others were open to trying the new system of botanical agents advocated by Samuel Thomson in his book A Guide to Health (1822) which became popular in mid-19th century America.
For some time Gideon carried in the two sides of his large saddlebags the drugs of both systems and let the patient dictate. Then he had an experience that forced him to choose, as he lost a two-year-old child under circumstances leaving him no room to doubt that the death was caused by the harsh allopathic remedies.
He then made a solemn vow to himself: “I would never administer another dose of the poisons of that system.” On the way home that day he paused to empty the “old school” drugs from his saddlebags and left them in a pile on the ground. The mixture of drugs caused enough of a chemical reaction to attract attention and become the focus of local gossip for the next several days.
Gideon recalled: “The doctors, who by this time were beginning to say a good deal about my apostasy, made a great scandal out of the boiling mass I had thrown out at Malone’s gate. But I turned the tables on them by telling the people that it was all old school medicines I had thrown out there, and that if I kept my senses, I would never kill any more children with it; for I had vowed never to carry a particle of it with me again. After this occurrence I carried none but botanical remedies with me.”
In addition to adopting Thomson’s botanical system, Gideon also sought to learn the medical remedies used by a prominent Choctaw doctor, spending six weeks in the woods with him gathering plants and writing down the ways he used them.
Becoming known as a skillful and personable physician, he trained some of his sons who shared in his practice. By the time the Lincecum family moved to Texas in 1847, Gideon was wealthy enough to purchase almost two thousand acres of choice land near present-day Brenham. Gradually he retired from the medical practice and spent his time studying science and collecting specimens for the Smithsonian and other museums.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.