Our Hometown Tourists Visit the California Pharmacy Museum

by Carol Dabrowiak and Janet Lewis

Located in the offices of the California Pharmacists Association, the Don and June Salvatori California Pharmacy Museum is a little tricky to find.  You need to arrange for an appointment in advance.  But it is well worth a visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of how medications are compounded and dispensed.

Recently Janet, Cynthia and I visited The Don and June Salvatori California Pharmacy Museum. Who knew there was such a place? We didn't. It is currently located in an office building off of North Market Street. Its last home was demolished for a new chain store.

The day of our visit we had two marvelous docents: Don Brooks and George MacMurphey. They are semi-retired, highly trained and professional pharmacists. Obviously they loved their work and were proud of their profession.  Between the two of them, we figured nearly 100 years of experience going back to when there were dozens of independent pharmacies in Sacramento.  Our docents said that back then, the area around 39th and J Streets near Mercy Hospital was known as “Pharmacy Row.”

During the 1990's, neighborhood pharmacies were closing in Sacramento and being replaced by large chain stores. Hundreds of artifacts chronicling the history of pharmacies were in danger of being discarded. No one wanted to lose them, so Don and June Salvatori collected the artifacts and funded the museum project.

Everything is beautifully on display in the Pharmacy Museum. We viewed the three vignettes set up depicting the evolution of the Drug Store.

The first vignette showed a store from the 1890's. We saw vintage bottles and labels on display.  We also got a demonstration of how pills were made by hand on small machines and dosages measured on balances (not scales-we were informed -there is a difference).  We also learned about the various ways that pharmacists kept track of prescriptions.  One interesting method with hundreds of paper squares strung on a wire and divided by strings could be mistaken for either a stack of pancakes (Carol) or a hornet’s nest (Janet).

The 1940's vignette looks like something from a black and white movie set of that era. The marble counters and wooden cabinets are in mint condition. A life size photograph on the back wall showing clerks in a drug store completes the illusion.

The 'modern' vignette is much like what you see when you walk into a pharmacy today. There are lots of colored labels on the bottles and boxes in front of the counter. The modern pharmacist has a computer and printer.  

At each stop, Don and George explained how medicines were compounded and dispensed.  Their explanations and anecdotes truly made the vignettes come alive for us.  Did you know that most of the compounds pharmacists prepared were originally herbal based recipes?   Hence the abbreviation “Rx” for “prescription.”  It comes from the Latin word for “recipe.”  And until the 1920's, pharmacists could fill prescriptions for heroin and cocaine. During Prohibition, alcohol and wine were only available by prescription.

The book shelves in the conference room at the back of the museum house vintage leather bound reference manuals.  One is the United States Pharmacopeia. Perhaps you have seen the abbreviation USP.  This is where it comes from.  These shelves also showcase the dozens of mortar and pestles and apothecary jars donated from all around the world - a fitting collection of the classic symbols of a pharmacy.

All the things we learned at the museum made me realize that we need an “Honor Your Pharmacist Day.” Did you know:

  • The profession evolved to be early adopters of computer technology, which made dispensing and tracking of prescriptions uniform. Our guides noted that doctors were pretty slow to accept on-line record keeping. The pharmacy profession embraced it.
  • Pharmacists are a final check on the medications you take so the dosage is appropriate. Also, potential adverse drug interactions are caught and rectified.
  • Pharmacists are almost always on duty and available for free professional advice.  Can you say that about your doctor?
  • Pharmacists are also knowledgeable about over the counter drugs and products, and can help you make choices.
  • The pharmacist is an important, trusted member of our medical care team. We should appreciate them more.

We had a mini education of the pharmacy profession. But you don’t have to be a pharmacist or related to one to enjoy a tour of the Don and June Salvatori California Pharmacy Museum.  Call the Pharmacy Museum and treat yourself to something unusual and interesting that will give you a new appreciation of your medicines.  We learned a lot through our visit with Don and George. We were so glad we made the effort to visit the Pharmacy Museum.