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September 26, 1996

Looking for a cure? Pharmacy museum has solutions for what ailed them long ago

Guaranteed to be a baby in every bottle. That was the once famous advertising claim of Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound.

But guaranteeing fertility was not the only thing that this "woman's medicine" from the early 20th century promised. According to the label, it also relieved "hot flashes and certain other symptoms associated with 'change of life,' cramps and other distress of monthly periods not due to organic disease. Acts as a uterine sedative." And Pinkham's did it all using only the best organic ingredients, including Jamaica dogwood, pleurisy root, black cohosh, life-root, licorice, dandelion, ginseng and, "solely as a solvent and preservative," 13.5 percent alcohol.

Fortified wine such as MD 20/20 and Thunderbird contains 13.5 percent alcohol. It is no wonder users of Pinkham's compound felt little pain, except maybe a hangover.

"It took care of women's complaints, whatever they happened to be," Richard Lithgow, special assistant to the dean for Alumni Affairs in the School of Pharmacy, noted with a laugh.

The last time Pinkham's Vegetable Compound could be found on the shelves of Pittsburgh pharmacies was in the 1950s. Beginning next week, though, that will change and the classic patent medicine, along with dozens of others, once again will make its appearance. But as a curiosity, not a cure-all.

Surrounded by pharmacy fixtures from the early 20th century, Pinkham's will be on display in the new Elmer H. Grimm Sr. Pharmacy Museum on the fourth floor of Salk Hall near the entrance to the School of Pharmacy.

The museum will be dedicated on Oct. 5 at 11 a.m. prior to Pitt's homecoming football game against Temple University. Elmer H. Grimm, for whom the museum is named, was a 1919 alumnus and the second of 13 Grimm and related Roose family members to graduate from Pitt's School of Pharmacy.

Elmer's grandson Donald Grimm, a 1963 graduate of the School of Pharmacy and 1970 graduate of the Katz Graduate School of Business, and his wife, Kathryn, provided the funds to build the museum on the condition that the amount of his donation be confidential, according to School of Pharmacy Dean Randy Juhl.

Most of the fixtures and artifacts in the museum were donated by Rodger Myer, class of 1954, who once owned a neighborhood pharmacy in Sheffield, Warren County, and Fred Hayes, class of 1958, who owned a pharmacy in Ligonier. When the two alumni sold their stores, they were left with a wealth of memorabilia in their attics, according to Juhl. The cabinets from Myer's pharmacy date back to the turn of the century and those from Hayes's pharmacy to just after World War II.

"We got fixtures from them," said Juhl. "We also got a lot of old drug products and some old equipment, mortars and pestles, a cash register and other things pharmacists used to prepare medicine, as well as some old sundry products pharmacies used to carry." Among those sundry products are sanitary pocket cuspidors. Known in less refined company as pocket spittoons, they were made of heavy wax paper that unfolds on four sides for use, and then closes up to be placed back in the pocket.

"Apparently, the demand ran out for them," Juhl noted with a straight face.

Creation of a pharmacy museum is something that had been on Juhl's mind for years. He got the idea from a small museum that had been in the University of Iowa's School of Pharmacy when he was a student.

"Pharmacists have this interest in old stuff," Juhl explained. "It seems to permeate the profession. Pharmacists collect old mortars and pestles, old pills, old books and old drugs.

"I think it's an important aspect of any profession to know a little bit about where you come from," he added. "This is something that students and alumni can see and get an appreciation of what pharmacy was like in the good old days." Juhl himself is an obvious lover of pharmacy memorabilia. At the door to the dean's offices stands a display case containing intravenous bottles from the 1950s, tins of petroleum jelly from the time of World War I and numerous patent medicines. Mixed among the books in his private office are more of the same and on the wall across from his desk is a print of an old time pharmacy.

Although Juhl had long contemplated creating a museum here, the project did not get off the ground until a couple of years ago when alumnus Jacob Grimm, a son of the museum's namesake, became involved. A 1950 graduate of the School of Pharmacy and a collector of pharmacy memorabilia, Grimm was named the school's archivist by Juhl and began sorting, repairing and cataloging the old pharmacy equipment and medicine that alumni occasionally donate to the school.

The project was given a boost by the continuing demise of the corner drugstore, which has made available many old pharmacy fixtures.

Among the more impressive items slated for display is an ornate powder mill. Looking like a glass ice cream maker tipped on its side, the mill would be filled with the various ingredients of a medication, and then cranked to mix them together.

"It used to be a part of the art of pharmacy to mix powders together," said special assistant to the dean Lithgow. "It is a time- consuming thing. With a powder mill, a pharmacist could measure it out, dump it in and an apprentice could stand there and turn the crank." In a glass vial sealed inside a wooden tube for protection against breakage is a dose of smallpox vaccine. Juhl finds the vaccine fascinating because not only has smallpox been eradicated as a disease, but the virus that causes it is almost extinct. The only smallpox viruses remaining on earth today are being housed in the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and a laboratory in Russia while researchers debate whether or not to destroy them.

"We don't have Napoleon's mortar and pestle or anything of historical significance like that," Juhl said. "What it [the museum] is is a snapshot of old time patent medicines, the days when the things on the shelf were guaranteed to cure broken bones, social diseases and win the war for the Allies." The design of the pharmacy museum is based on descriptions found in various books owned by Juhl. The actual design, which recreates a corner pharmacy storefront, was done by Dewi Wong and the architectural work by John Sysko, both of the Office of Facilities Management. Faculty, students, staff and other visitors to the School of Pharmacy will be able to view the contents of the museum as if looking through the windows of a pharmacy. The museum, located near the fourth floor elevators, will be open during Salk Hall's regular hours.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 3

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