Words by Katie Kissal | Photography By Erik Patten
'Apothecary' is the historical term for a person or location that made and sold drugs and herbal remedies for medicinal purposes. Not only does Alexandria still have one, but it’s perfectly preserved and still serving the community.
The Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary was founded in Alexandria by Edward Stabler in 1792. It remained a family business until it closed its doors in 1933. Today, it stands in the very same spot and operates as a museum. As if time has stopped, the building and all of its contents are original, down to the contents of medicinal bottles.
This kind of preservation provides a time capsule-like experience for visitors. It is a detailed demonstration of the role the apothecary played within both medicinal history and the community of Alexandria.
After apprenticing under his brother in Leesburg, Virginia, Edward Stabler opened the Alexandria apothecary in 1792. He first rented space near the corner of S. Fairfax and Prince Streets, but later purchased land in 1805 at 107 S. Fairfax and built the existing three-story brick building that stands today. In 1829, he purchased 105 S. Fairfax and further expanded.
In addition to medicine, Stabler sold farm and garden equipment, surgical and dental instruments, soap, perfume, cigars, paint supplies and toiletry items. The business was one of the most successful medicines and retail businesses in Alexandria. Ledgers on display in the museum show customers including Robert E. Lee, Martha Washington and Nelly Custis.
The apothecary was a family affair. Stabler’s eldest son, William, apprenticed under his father and ultimately took over the business after Edward’s death in 1831. William’s brother-in-law, John Leadbeater, joined the business in 1844. The two kept the thriving business in operation until William’s death in 1852. The Leadbeater family continued to operate the apothecary until 1933 when it was forced into bankruptcy during the Great Depression.
Shortly after, a small group of Alexandrians bought the building at auction and turned it into a museum by 1939. Of the 20,000 items archived, items such as hand-blown glass bottles, herbal botanicals, letters, invoices and ledgers are all on display.
Outlander and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary: What’s the Connection?
Many people are familiar with the popular Outlander books, a historical fiction fantasy series by Diana Gabaldon. The stories have it all; romance, time travel, fiction, science fiction, non-fiction, mystery and more! A television series based on the books was developed in 2014, and each season largely follows each book.
The main character and heroine, Claire Randall, is a 20th-century post-WWII combat nurse/midwife/healer who briefly reunites with her husband in the Scottish Highlands. One moment she is taking a casual stroll around a standing stone circle and in the next moment, she abruptly catapults back in time 200 years to the exact same spot. From there, she is thrust upon historical adventure after adventure, including evading her husband’s unsavory family lineage (think great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather). To save her from the grips of her patriarchal in-law, she is married off to a Scottish Klansman who becomes her mainstay love interest throughout the series.
This storyline has positioned the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum as a natural destination for Outlander fans. “Over the years, many fans of the novels have visited the museum and made mention of the clear ties between the museum and the series,” said Lauren Gleason, program coordinator for the Office of Historic Alexandria.
Seeing a great opportunity to capture audiences and celebrate the history of the apothecary, Gleason created a series of tours so visitors can tour the museum and learn more about the herbal medicines and themes mentioned in the series. The most recent “Outlandish Tour of the Apothecary Museum” was held on November 21st in honor of the release of Gabaldon’s ninth book in the Outlander series.
If you missed this event, don’t despair! The museum is open for self-guided tours of the first floor or guided tours of the first and second floors.
By Way of History:
The Role of Women in
Medicine in the 18th Century
Claire’s adventure in time travel highlights the nuanced role of women in medicine during the 18th Century. Like many examples of the infancy of professions, the early female experience is full of demonstration and experience but diminished in acknowledgment.
While women were expected to have a high baseline knowledge of healing treatments (lavender and chamomile for sleep or ginger for upset stomachs) for their households and communities, there is hardly any evidence historians can reference because most were paid in trade instead of money. Women with more extensive experience and knowledge were often known as midwives, not only delivering babies but also providing medical care to women and children. Today, it would be seen more as a nurse practitioner. Like apothecaries, midwives were apprenticeship-trained.
In the book and television series, characters like Claire Fraser and Mrs. Fitz could be identified as midwives or nurses.
Outlandish or Accurate? Myth Busting the Outlander Herbal Medicines
Herbal medicines featured throughout the Outlander series can be found in the museum. Are they accurate? Do they even exist? Let’s take a closer look:
Cascara: In the book series, cascara is used several times to “poison” adversaries. In smaller doses, it is even used to fake illness.
Outlandish or Accurate? Probably more dramatic than anything. Cascara dates back to Native Americans as a laxative. In fact, up until 2002, it was an ingredient in over-the-counter drugs that treated constipation. However, because manufacturers were not compelled to address safety and effectiveness concerns of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with costly studies, it was removed from over-the-counter laxative formulas. You can still find it available as a dietary supplement, but it’s not recommended for long-term use (more than a week) due to dehydration and potential liver damage.
Dauco Seeds: Also known as Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Carrot, Outlander depicts its use as birth control.
Outlandish or Accurate? Although not used in the past 100 years, this is accurate. While tea made from the root has been used to prevent kidney stones, it was also used for centuries as a contraceptive (sort of a “morning-after” pill).
Leeches and Maggots: These tools in Claire's medical toolbox are frequently used during the series to remove blood from under the skin after an injury.
Outlandish or Accurate? Squeamish and accurate. The practice goes back to Aboriginals and Native Mayan tribes. Today, it even has the blessing of the FDA. Maggots (now medical maggots) are used to remove necrotic (dead) tissue from wounds and leeches are used for a variety of purposes including blood thinning, circulation improvement and clot prevention. The apothecary sold leaches to physicians for bleeding treatments.
Gallberries: Claire uses these to treat malaria, a serious parasitic disease.
Outlandish or Accurate? Potentially accurate. Today, malaria is prevented and treated with harsh medications. However, gallberries contain quinine, a chemical found in plants that have treated malaria historically. While malaria is not endemic to Virginia, it could be brought over by travelers and immigrants unknowingly. The apothecary has numerous containers that hold the bark of the tree that was a common source of quinine, which indicates it was frequently used.