Just What the Doctor Ordered: Biochemical Analysis of Historical Medicines from Downtown Tucson, Arizona

William A. White, III | Anthropology | International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 2020

In the last decade, historical archaeologists in the American West have begun conducting biochemical analyses of contents in bottles recovered from archaeological sites dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Archaeological excavations conducted at the Alameda-Stone Cemetery Site provided a large amount of data about the residents of a Tucson, Arizona neighborhood that existed between 1889 and the 1950s. This was a transformative period in the pharmaceutical industry when university-trained pharmacists advanced their field and advocated against the use of mass-produced patent and proprietary medicines. The discovery of two sealed medicine bottles with intact contents provided an opportunity to examine medicinal products from bygone days. This analysis centered on the main question: What can archaeologists discover about the contents of historical bottles that were discarded and have been subjected to environmental conditions for decades? The bottle contents from Tucson were analyzed by gas chromatograph/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to reveal the ingredients of the medicines and were compared with biochemical medicine analysis conducted at other sites in the American West. These results, in conjunction with historical and archaeological data, demonstrate archaeologically recovered medicines can provide insight into pharmacy and medicine ingredients used in the American West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.