Mystery and intrigue surrounded apothecaries of the Middle Ages, but by the colonial era in the 17th and 18th centuries, the trade had developed into a medical profession. Colonial apothecaries prescribed remedies for illness, aided in childbirth and performed minor surgeries, including tooth extractions. Apothecaries, or their apprentices, had several trade tools for these procedures.
Mortar and Pestle
An apothecary usually made his own medicines by grinding herbs and other substances in a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle were so recognizable to the trade that some apothecaries marked their shops with signs bearing the image of these tools.
Apothecaries treated injuries, including broken bones. They also helped with childbirth, and so carried forceps and surgical knives to aid in that procedure. Bloodletting was an ancient practice used frequently in colonial times. Thus, a common surgical tool was the lancet, a small knife used to cut abscesses or draw blood. As an alternative to placing a lancet into the vein of an ill patient, apothecaries used leeches to drain blood.
Colonial people cleaned their teeth with gargles, scrapers or roots shaped into brushes. Tooth decay and other oral problems commonly ailed them. An apothecary or his apprentice performed many tooth extractions with specialized tools. These included: tooth keys, which looked like colonial door keys for removal of lower molars; goat's foot elevators to lift a tooth from the bone; and pelicans, named because this tool that used leverage to loosen an infected tooth resembled the bird. Unfortunately for colonial patients, anesthesia was not used in tooth extractions until the mid-1800s.
Medical Manuals and Textbooks
Apothecaries learned their trade by working for several years as an apprentice, by observing in hospitals, by attending lectures, and by consulting medical manuals and textbooks. Many of these books that date to the colonial era still survive in the National Library of Medicine. Apothecaries carried manuals to consult on the treatment of diseases, surgical procedures, medical theories, the uses of certain drugs and medicinal herbal recipes.