The DC Region’s Medical History

DC, Maryland, and Virginia have a number of museums that deal with the history of health, medicine, and drugs. Below are examples from each of the three jurisdictions:

District of Columbia

The building on 7th St. NW in the heart of DC, near the National Archives, was slated for demolition in 1996 when General Services Administration (GSA) employee Richard Lyons made a pretty cool discovery while inspecting the premises. On the third floor, he saw an envelope hanging in the slats of the ceiling, hinting at more objects to encounter in the attic above. As Lyons explored the attic, he found long-abandoned and forgotten artifacts from Clara Barton’s time in the building, living in one small room and using the bulk of the third floor to run her office for locating missing Civil War soldiers.

After Lyons, and others who understood the historical significance of the building, fought to preserve the rowhouse, the space was restored and opened to the public as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. Today, visitors can see old medicine bottles and a piece of a rubberized tent that could be put up for shelter, read examples of the letters sent by and to Clara Barton, feel the difference between two walls in her bedroom (one the original wall of the building, and one a makeshift partition that was put up to decrease the size of her room and increase the working space), and learn about Barton’s other roles in life from Angel of the Battlefield to founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara Barton's bedroom in the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum

Clara Barton’s bedroom in the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum


One of my Weekly Museum Visits was a trip to Beall-Dawson House, run by the Montgomery County Historical Society, where I walked across a snowy lawn to see a house all decorated for a Christmas from the days of yore. Although the guided tour of the many rooms of the house was the main component of the experience, I also got to see the tiny one-room Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine, also located on the premises. (In its heyday, it had been on a different street in the core of Rockville.)

Dr. Edward Elisha Stonestreet practiced medicine for the latter half of the 19th century, commissioned by the Union Army as a surgeon and continuing to treat patients until his death in 1903. The museum’s objects reflect the changes in medical practice, and the world, during the decades of his service, from the once-sworn-by use of bloodletting as medical treatment to the invention of the telephone.

The exterior of the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine

The exterior of the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine


Like the Stonestreet Museum, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum was one of my Weekly Museum Visits back in 2010. The historic pharmacy, located in Old Town Alexandria, is now open to the public as a museum, where visitors can see implements used in the manufacturing of 19th century drugs and medicines. Like today’s CVS and Rite Aid, the apothecary sold items like toilet paper and sunglasses in addition to medicine.

As for the substances themselves, some are the kind you might put in tea or cupcakes (vanilla, allspice, cinnamon). Some seem to come straight from Harry Potter’s Potions textbooks (unicorn root, dragon’s blood) and are highlighted in the museum’s Harry Potter-themed events. Others include marijuana and opium.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Thank you to those who gave me tours of these three sites!

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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