Theodore Metcalf, “the Nestor of Boston’s Drug Trade”

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

The apothecary of Theodore Metcalf & Co. was a Boston staple for decades. Founded by Metcalf in 1837 in the former house of Peter Faneuil at 39 Tremont Street, the pharmacy was patronized by untold numbers of the city’s residents in the 19th and early 20th century. The MHS recently acquired a fascinating volume listing thousands of daily prescriptions administered to Metcalf & Co. customers between 19 April 1865 and 5 April 1866.

Daybook of Theodore Metcalf & Co.

The volume is very large—over 16 inches tall and 2 inches thick—and every one of its 552 pages is dense with writing. (I don’t know if the handwriting is Metcalf’s or a clerk’s.) Prescriptions for a single day stretch to several pages. Considering that this volume represents only one year of prescriptions, we can get a sense of the scope of the operation. The pharmacy obviously did a booming business.

I couldn’t possibly list all the medicines, tinctures, extracts, and treatments Metcalf’s clientele were prescribed, but here are a few that caught my eye.

There’s cannabis…

Detail from page 6 of daybook
Detail from page 6


Detail of page from daybook
Detail from page 73

And belladonna.

Detail of page from daybook
Detail from page 187

Other prescriptions include laudanum, potassium iodide, quinine sulfate, narceine, camphor, and Hooper’s Female Pills(!). (I’ll leave it to the experts to make inferences from these, but I admit I spent a little time researching what conditions these medications were used to treat.) A promotional booklet, cited in a later article, touted Metcalf & Co.’s role in introducing to the American public “the four inestimable boons to humanity, chloroform, cocaine, ether, and vaccine.”

Some entries in the volume contain specific instructions, such as “To be rubbed behind each ear at night” or “One pill every second hour until the bowels are thoroughly moved.” Many, though not all, include the name of the prescribing doctor, a who’s who of the Boston medical establishment, as well as the name of the patient. Among Metcalf’s more recognizable customers were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow…

detail from daybook
Detail from page 183

And Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

detail from daybook
Detail from page 233

Some of the symbols and abbreviations are unfamiliar to me, including letters in the first column and something resembling shorthand or Roman numerals in the third. I assume these notations indicate doses or lots, but I wonder if any Beehive readers might know. Please leave a comment below if you do!

Theodore Metcalf was only 25 years old when he opened his pharmacy, which would grow by leaps and bounds until it became what an article in the National Magazine (September 1904) called “the finest drug store in the world.” A piece in the Bulletin of Pharmacy (July 1908) features some terrific photographs of the store’s interior.

An obituary of Theodore Metcalf in the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record (5 May 1894) compared him to the wise advisor of the Odyssey and the Iliad, “the Nestor of Boston’s drug trade.” Metcalf was also credited with “elevating the position of the pharmacist from the rank of a tradesman to that of a professional man.” He was one of the founders of the American Pharmaceutical Association (now the American Pharmacists Association) in 1852.

We hope this volume will prove to be a valuable resource for researchers. The raw data it contains could inform many different fields of study. And you don’t have to take my word for it: according to one of the articles cited above, “The prescription books of the Metcalf store are of great historic value.” Another writer agreed, declaring that Metcalf’s “array of prescription books bound in Russia leather […] told an eloquent tale.”