The first time Sarah Becker walked into the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop in 1995, it was a disaster. The place was falling part. It was not handicapped accessible. Birds were nesting in the attic and leaving unsightly deposits everywhere. Broken furniture and archival material cluttered the upper floors.
“You couldn’t even walk through the second floor because it was crowded with boxes and boxes of archival material,” said Becker, who was approached by the museum’s board to put together a business model for the museum. “I was told to save it or sell it.”
She decided not to sell it, spending years sifting through the museum’s archives. Once she was able to open them, Becker discovered that their contents offered a priceless slice of Alexandria life. They included records of some of the city’s most pre-eminent names: Washington, Lee, Custis and Snowden. They told the story of a seaport town, its particular medical ailments and its now-antiquated notions about good health.
“This collection speaks to a nostalgia for what health care used to be,” Becker said. “People are yearning for the friendly neighborhood pharmacist, and this museum offers that.”
The apothecary shop opened a window into a world of herbal remedies, when pharmacists used natural antidotes to combat common ailments. Sassafras was administered to reduce fever. Ginseng was prescribed to relieve nausea and vomiting. Rhubarb was used as a laxative. Crocus was thought to relieve gout. Bleeding, blistering and purging were common methods for “purifying” tainted blood.
MOST OF THE HERBS, potions and paper labels remained in their drawers. The 1933 inventory was still waiting on the shelves of the third-floor rooms — its packaging advertising name brands that have long ceased to manufacture products. For the museum’s board of directors, preserving that archive seemed like an impossible goal for a nonprofit organization.
“We felt that we didn’t have the resources to maintain the archives and develop programs,” said Harry Hart, president of the museum’s board, who recently helped put together a plan to give the museum to the city. “It’s an economy of scale because the city already operates a number of historic properties and they’ve already got the expertise to operate something like this.”
Last year, City Manager Jim Hartmann recommended that City Council members agree to receive the museum as a gift — essentially becoming responsible for one of the most intriguing medical archives in the country. The transfer of assets will occur when an extensive renovation is complete — hopefully within a month or two.
“Since the city operates and maintains museums, and since the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum is a unique asset which needs to be kept viable and open to the public, the museum board has felt that the city was in the best position to make sure the museum remained viable,” wrote Hartmann on Dec. 12. He concluded that “the city should accept the gift of the museum, its collection, as well as accept management of the museum’s endowment.”
When the city fire-suppression code has been met, Becker will step aside and let the city assume control of the museum. But they will be receiving a labor of love. She has worked with the museum board for a decade to transform the museum from a cluttered and ramshackle operation to a modern museum.
“The potential of this place is only limited by the imagination,” she said. “And because its history spans such a long time, this is the only historic site that’s capable of interpreting all the other historic sites.”
BECKER IS A NATIVE of Evansville, Ind. She has lived in Alexandria since 1987, when she moved to the Washington metropolitan area to be a policy analyst for the World Bank. She received a bachelor’s degree in political economics from Sweet Briar College and a master’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics. In the early 1990s, she started an Alexandria-based consulting business that attracted the attention of the museum’s board of directors.
“My reputation is for turning around troubled organizations,” said Becker, who is a former consultant for the Smithsonian Institution. “The apothecary became important to me because I live here.”
She became director in 1995, serving in that capacity until 2001. Since that time, she has remained active with the museum board — overseeing the renovation that started in 2004. Now, with the renovations almost complete, Becker plans to exit from stage left — leaving interpretation of the new city-owned museum to the Office of Historic Alexandria.
“To bring this building up to code has been a challenge,” she said. “With this restoration, we have expanded the potential for interpretation.”
EDWARD STABLER was a trendsetter, breaking new ground in medical care and civil rights. As a 17-year-old apprentice in an apothecary shop in Pennsylvania, he was exposed to the abolitionist movement. When he moved to Virginia a few years later to start his own shop, Stabler became active in Alexandria’s nascent abolitionist movement. For the remainder of his life, Stabler opposed the peculiar institution of slavery — a position that wasn’t easy in Virginia, where slaves were key to the economic system that had developed during the colonial period.
“Edward Stabler was a fascinating man to get to know,” Becker said. “He was an avowed abolitionist, yet his customers had a philosophy that was drastically different.”
When he opened the apothecary shop in 1792, Alexandria was a seaport city with a population of fewer than 3,000. Stabler's shop become a staple of commerce in Old Town for more than 130 years. It was here where George Washington’s doctor bought medicine and Robert E. Lee bought paint for the Arlington House.
In 1796, Stabler advertised a meeting of the Society for the Relief of People Illegally Held in Bondage. The announcement, printed in the Alexandria Gazette Packet's antecedent, the Columbian Mirror and Alexandria Gazette, was a way to see and be seen — attracting new abolitionists to Stabler’s apothecary shop and letting everyone know where he stood on the controversial issue of slavery.
“It sickens my heart to reflect on it,” Stabler wrote. “And when all that the friends of humanity can do, shall be done, I fear that the avarice and obduracy of America will force this tremendous corrective upon them.”
For the rest of his life, Stabler remained active in the antislavery movement. He would use his own resources to help individuals, often purchasing slaves in order to grant them freedom. He has seven sons, all of whom would eventually become pharmacists.
In 1819, Edward Stabler gave the shop to his son William Stabler, the eldest son. William Stabler did not have children, so his successor was John Leadbeater, his brother-in-law. In 1852, the name of the shop was changed to reflect the new ownership. Today, the shop contains both names — Stabler and Leadbeater — and its collection of archives reveals the particular needs of a seafaring community that constantly battled yellow fever, scurvy and typhoid.
“The archives reveal a lot about sanitation and development,” Becker said. “It’s not just about medical history; it’s about American history as well.”
WHEN IT OPENS, the new city-owned museum will include four distinct spaces: the 1840s-era apothecary, a gift shop, a multi-purpose room and a manufacturing room. Opening up the second floor, which was previously off-limits to visitors, has doubled the size of the museum and greatly expanded the possibilities for interpretation. The apothecary is anticipated to be ready for a spring opening.
“Moving from room to room reflects the evolution of a business,” said Becker. “The first floor reflects the time before the Civil War and the second floor reflects the time after the Civil War.”
The first-floor apothecary shop remains largely intact from its original use. The Gothic-revival shelves that the Stabler family installed in the 1840s are still there. The original marble counters and mirrored panels are well-worn, in constant use for generations.
Interpretations of this room will provide visitors with a glimpse into the Alexandria late 18th century and early 19th century.
Upstairs, the museum will include a “manufacturing room,” where visitors will learn about the products that were once massed produced there: Stabler's Vermifuge, Stabler's Worm Destroyer and Leadbeater's Anodyne Pectoral.
“There will be a fiscal impact to the city to operate the museum,” the city manager wrote in a recent memorandum to the City Council. “The staffing needs will be the largest cost, with the hours of operation, staffing, income from the museum’s over $175,000 endowment, profits from the gift shop, and admission income representing factors which are being reviewed.”