Just what the doctor ordered: The New Orleans man who changed the face of medicine
Louisiana may be laggard in many ways, but it did take the lead in this category: In 1804, it became the first state with a law requiring anyone wanting to become a pharmacist to pass a three-hour oral examination by physicians and pharmacists. In 1816, New Orleanian Louis J. Dufilho Jr. was the first to pass the exam, which was administered in the Cabildo, making him the first licensed pharmacist in the country. The law, which Gov. William C.C. Claiborne had backed, eliminated the slipshod previous system, which was unregulated, letting anyone mix and dispense medications after a six-month apprenticeship — and which consequently led to frequent mistakes when it came to prescribing and dispensing drugs.
The practice of pharmacy today is highly regulated. Instead of the six-month apprenticeships that were common in Louisiana’s early days, anyone who aspires to become a pharmacist must complete a four-year program after earning an undergraduate degree, although some students may enter earlier. Louisiana has two colleges of pharmacy, at Xavier University in New Orleans and the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
- Dufilho’s apothecary shop at 514 Chartres St., where he set up his business in 1823, has been the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum since 1950. It is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- A native of southern France, Dufilho had studied at the College of Pharmacy in Paris before moving to New Orleans in 1800.
- Yellow fever was a recurring scourge in 19th-century New Orleans, killing one person in six, including Dufilho’s brother. Instead of firing off cannons and burning sulfur — mid-19th-century attempts to dispel the “bad air” believed to cause such diseases — Dufilho used quinine to fight mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Although he used the best information available, the war against yellow fever would be futile until Dr. Walter Reed and his colleagues in 1900 linked the disease to infected mosquitoes and recommended thoroughgoing mosquito control.
- Like other pharmacists of his day, Dufilho mixed his own drugs, which often were extracted from plant materials. He also made his own pills and suppositories.
- Dufilho lived above the pharmacy.
- The museum is believed to be haunted, but not by Dufilho. Rather, it is said to be haunted by Dr. Joseph Dupas, to whom Dufilho sold the building 1857.
- Dupas had a shady reputation — there were rumors that he conducted voodoo rites and performed experiments on pregnant slaves — and he died in 1857 of complications of syphilis. His ghost, wearing a brown suit or a lab coat, is believed to have been seen after hours in the museum, where he has been blamed for setting off the building’s alarm system, moving items in display cases and throwing books.
Dufilho, with is science-based approach, was a trailblazer for pharmacists, not just in New Orleans but across the nation. Because of his knowledge and reputation, he showed that a pharmacist can be more than someone who makes and dispenses medication, said Stephen Houin, one of his descendants, in an interview with the History Channel. “The pharmacist was more like a doctor today, in that people would go to him to diagnose what their problem was, and they would be treated accordingly,” Houin said.