Inside the Collection

Leeches, honey, tamarinds

Apothecary’s specie jars
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In the basement recently three highly decorated jars caught my eye – and transported me to a nineteenth century pharmacy. I imagined dozens of beautiful bottles arrayed on shelves, labelled with arcane text – and these three apothecary’s specie jars taking pride of place on the counter, ready for the pharmacist to dip in and dole out their contents.

Apothecary’s specie jar marked 'Leeches'
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

One jar is designed to hold leeches, with holes in the lid to provide air for the bloodthirsty little suckers. The second is for honey, a handy-cure-all. But the third (unfortunately lacking a lid) is for tamarinds. Where do these tropical fruit fit in the picture?

A quick search reveals their laxative properties. In a modern pharmacy, you’d probably find several products boasting the same effect. They’d be tightly wrapped in foil inside a sealed cardboard box, or encapsulated in gel and packed in a tamper-proof plastic jar. Much more hygienic! Maybe it is this raising of hygiene standards that means we rarely need the services of a leech today.

The leech jar was donated by Harold Jones of Ashfield in 1957. The other two jars are part of our John Watson Pharmacy Collection, which was purchased in 1980 with funds donated by Sydney pharmacy chain W H Soul Pattinson. The Museum’s pharmacy collection allows us glimpses into a world of scientific remedies and folk cures; strychnine, belladonna and more modern toxins; chemical and physical (and occasionally biological) treatments; and measured dispensing of prescribed drugs alongside the commercial reality of needing to satisfy all manner of customer whims.

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