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Apothecaries Hall – "Arsenic and Old Lace"

This story was initially published in 2005

On December 24, 1810, the Charlottetown Weekly Register reported that Thomas DesBrisay Jr. had opened an apothecary shop on Queen’s Square. The DesBrisays were well-known members of Prince Edward Island’s Family Compact elite. Thomas’ father was the island’s sole Protestant clergyman and his grandfather had been a very controversial Lieutenant Governor of the colony. DesBrisay planned to supply “the medical, health, and drug supplies, and various cures for Islanders and their livestock.”

1843 painting of Queen’s Square by Fanny Bayfield (1814-91). Apothecaries Hall at left, with Round Market, Province House and St. Paul’s Church.
© Library and Archives Canada
Charlottetown – a village of 100 families – was already the administrative centre of the colony and slowly growing into the island’s market and communications hub. DesBrisay astutely built the “Apothecaries Hall” at the corner of Queen and Grafton streets, directly across from the farmer’s market. It was also within earshot of the colonial administrative building – the future site of Province House, where legend persists that Apothecaries Hall delivered a curative hangover potion to Sir John A. Macdonald during the 1864 Charlottetown Conference!

Given its location, Apothecaries Hall soon became a common meeting place for rural and village Islanders. It also meant that the business was the first to enjoy outdoor gas lighting (1859), electric lighting (1885) and telephone service (1889). “Charlottetown flourished as the province prospered” was the late 19th-century maxim, but as the city grew so did competition. In 1863 there were three druggists located on Queen Street. By 1922, there were 13, of those 10 were located close to the DesBrisay Building. In 1874, George Hughes, a close friend of the DesBrisay family, bought the business and renamed it "Apothecaries Hall-Hughes Drug Company Limited." In 1900, Hughes built a three-storey sandstone and brick building to replace the original wooden structure, which had escaped all five major city fires. 

Interior of Apothecaries Hall (1969) with original interior fixtures predating 1900 restoration
© Parks Canada Agency

The apothecary’s products included prescriptions containing everything from arsenic to zinc-oxide, including exotic ingredients such as ipecacuanha, rhubarb magnesia, and squill. Patent medicines like Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Purgative Pellets were also available. However, while the product variety grew to include cigars, soda fountain drinks, restorative creams, bonnet wadding and raw lace; it was medicine that remained the business mainstay. Recurring epidemics, such as the 1847 typhus outbreak, ensured that the apothecary would be greeted daily by townsfolk checking on the arrival of the essential vaccines.

When the Queen Street pharmacy closed its doors for good in 1986, it had already been recognized as a National Historic Site. Apothecaries Hall, one of the oldest continually operated pharmacies in Canada, was awarded this designation in 1969.

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