The secret to a successful doctor’s visit is asking informed questions. “I read online that mercury is poison. Could you prescribe something better for my back pain?” “Will my insurance plan cover leeches?” “Is amputation the only option?”
At Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary Shop, an 18th-century doctor’s office and pharmacy in Fredericksburg, Va., the answers are “no,” “I don’t know” and “yes.”
Backstory: Mercer, a Scotsman, moved in 1761 to Fredericksburg, where he practiced medicine until the Revolutionary War. He enlisted, and died in battle. This re-creation of his apothecary opened in 1927, though current research indicates Mercer’s establishment was actually across the street.
Inside: Docents in period dress stay in character at all times. In the front room, a no-nonsense woman holds forth on the shop’s remedies. Some treatments are valid, such as Peruvian bark, which contains the anti-malarial compound quinine. (“Peculiar word, must be foreign,” tsked the guide.) Many are discredited: Mercury is not, we now know, a panacea. Suggested questions: “What are those millipedes for?” and “You got anything for this itch?”
Next up is Mercer’s apprentice, who shows off live leeches, molar-extraction tools and musket ball-removal implements. The youth was unfazed when asked the provenance of some teeth (real ones, loose, in a pile, on a table). “They were donated by a dentist of your time,” he answered politely. Suggested questions: “What does sawdust have to do with amputation?” and “What do you feed the leeches? In my time, that is.”
Gift Shelf: The tour is set in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, after Parliament closed Boston Harbor in response to the Tea Party. A dollar buys a packet of Liberty tea, a made-in-the-USA herbal mix that, thankfully, makes no medicinal claims whatsoever.
Getting There: A round-trip Amtrak ticket from Union Station is $24. The shop is a half-mile from the Fredericksburg Amtrak station.
Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, 1020 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, Va.; $2-$5; 540-373-1776.