Some fourth-year pharmacy students have brought new meaning to the phrase “back to basics,” by participating in an elective rotation at the Colonial Williamsburg apothecary.

The students dress in historically accurate colonial clothing and educate visitors about the role of pharmacists in colonial Virginia, all while enhancing their own pharmacy educations. Not only do they learn about 18th century medicine, but many of the skills actually translate into the modern pharmacy.

Dena Kota, a current pharmacy intern, and Chenoa Shelton, who previously interned, both said they had some interest in history before beginning the rotation. Kota grew up in Williamsburg and even attended elementary school in Colonial Williamsburg, whereas Shelton has participated in Revolutionary War reenactments in North Carolina. 

Kota, now in her fourth year of pharmacy school at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the experience was unique.

“It’s a great immersive experience...you’re immersed in every aspect, even down to your dressing,” Kota said.

To prepare for the internship, Kota read primary sources and allowed those to influence her interpretation. She added that speaking with visitors has improved her communication and presentation skills, which are very relevant to modern pharmacy.

Robin Kipps, who has been running the apothecary since 1983, said there are more similarities between 18th century and modern pharmacy than most people would think. Many professional ethics and responsibilities at the core of the profession are still the same, Kipps said, as well as issues such as access to medical care and addiction.

Surprisingly, some remedies are still useful today, Kipps added. Colonial pharmacists used ingredients such as chalk for heartburn, calamine for skin irritations, and cinchona bark for fevers. The bark was later discovered to contain quinine, which is still used for malaria, and quinidine, which is used for some cardiac conditions.1

Shelton, a fourth-year pharmacy student at Campbell University, said the internship gave her a new appreciation for modern conveniences.

“I actually hand-rolled the pills,” Shelton said. “You just appreciate how much work came into your profession hundreds of years before you came along.”

Shelton added that she also realized the important role pharmacists played in their community and how that respect is still important today.

“They were involved in all aspects of the community, not just prescribing medications,” she said.

Both students agreed that the rotation had its challenges, namely dealing with the 18th century English. Kota said she had been working on transcribing some of the historical ledgers with patient and medical information, but added that it takes time.

“You can have a recipe, you can have directions, but there is an art to it as well,” she said.

For her part, Kipps said she enjoys seeing the students expand their understanding of what a pharmacist can mean to their community. Although there is an official syllabus, she said they try to work with students’ interests.

“People tend to learn more when they’re having fun,” Kipps said.

Reference
  1. Colonial Williamsburg. Trades: Apothecary. Colonial Williamsburg website. https://www.history.org/almanack/life/trades/tradeapo.cfm. Accessed November 5, 2019.