Apothecary Comes Alive

UArizona’s Pharmacy museum highlights drugstore charm from years past.

Winter 2023
Alexis Peregoy

Alexis Peregoy, the UArizona pharmacy museum’s new director, speaks highly of the museum’s range. Exhibits reveal the history of pharmacy through more than 20,000 bottles, tins and boxes containing potions, tinctures and elixirs.

/ Chris Richards photo

At the heart of America’s Main Street from the mid-1800s on was a cozy little neighborhood drugstore. A soda fountain provided treats, and a druggist supplied friendly advice and remedies for whatever ailed you.

Today, you can see many of that iconic drugstore’s familiar elements at the Coit Museum of Pharmacy & Health Sciences, which has a new home in the University of Arizona’s R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy, just south of the College of Medicine – Tucson and Banner – University Medical Center. 

As you stand in front of one of the old ceramic drug vases perched behind the glass doors of an antique showcase, one thought may strike you: This is history in a bottle. These same bottles may once have served Arizona’s cowboys, miners or farmers, sold from shops along Congress Street. 

In the museum, you can explore the collection’s 20,000 bottles, tins and boxes, many still filled with potions, tinctures and elixirs that might have had roots in Greece, Babylonia or China. It’s all innocent stuff: The contents are no longer potent. 

Along with fancy wood cabinets with stained glass in the doors, visitors also will see all sorts of mortar and pestles, symbols of pharmacy’s past. 

The museum was opened in 1966 by the College of Pharmacy after it received a collection from a 1930s pharmacist and inspector for the Arizona pharmacy board. The gift included treasures mainly from the 1850s to the 1950s. In 2006, the museum acquired a large collection from Disneyland’s Main Street USA model Upjohn Pharmacy. Today, the collection is one of the world’s top representations of the profession’s history.

For decades, these fascinating museum exhibits were scattered on various floors of two buildings. But in the museum’s new 2,000-square-foot home, the Disneyland items and other exhibits will finally have a grand permanent home.

In 2021, the College of Pharmacy received a transformative $50 million gift from alumnus R. Ken Coit. A portion of his investment funded the museum’s newly dedicated space. 

The gift also led to the museum’s name being changed from the History of Pharmacy Museum to the Coit Museum of Pharmacy & Health Sciences. The new name also reflects an expansion in the museum’s focus — no longer solely history or exclusively pharmacy but including the other UArizona Health Sciences colleges and beyond.

In addition to its new home, the museum recently welcomed Alexis Peregoy, its new director. Throughout the museum’s history, it has had four curators. Peregoy looks forward to contributing to the legacy cared for by her predecessors. 

“I’m elated to lead the Coit Museum through the coming years in its new space,” Peregoy says. “I believe visitors will be surprised by the uniqueness of the museum, as well as its range, and I hope they will walk away excited about the history and contemporary practices of pharmacy and health sciences.”

One of the must-see exhibits is “Great Moments in Pharmacy,” a video display featuring 40 paintings from the 1950s that have been digitized and made into stunning animations that “fly” the viewer in and around each painting while a narration describes its story.

The exhibit won a silver award in the 2021 Telly Awards, which honor excellence in video and television.

In contrast to that cutting-edge technology, an elegant showcase from a Tennessee pharmacy, made in 1870, is the museum’s oldest furniture piece. The collection also includes glass “show globes” filled with colorful liquids, an elegant feature of early drugstores and apothecary shops.

Also on display are packets of early “cigarettes” used to convey medicines for lung diseases. They had no tobacco, mainly just paper and drugs, and worked a bit like current inhalers. 

Cans of Indian hemp or cannabis had varied applications in those days before strict regulations were put in place after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was created with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Many labels on the bottles, tins and boxes are truly fascinating. “Pastor Koenig’s Nervine” promised to cure epilepsy and the “aftereffects of inebriety,” common on the Arizona frontier. For “costiveness” (constipation), you might have bought “McLean’s Universal Pills.”

“You never know what you will encounter in archival collections — it isn’t always what you would expect, like manuscripts, correspondence and photographs,” Peregoy says. “I’ve had dentures, death masks, human remains and even severed fingers in a collection. Now, with stewarding this new collection, I can say I have worked with antique apothecary jars and 100-year-old chewed gum.”

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