Photo by Olivier Koning
In late April 1899
Mimi Pezzuto with a few of the prescription logs of the Hilo Drug Company.
a ship named the Henry Villard
anchored at Hilo Bay. Someone on board had laryngitis or tonsilitis or maybe just a sore throat. A lot of people on board had bedbugs or scabies or possibly fleas. It's all a bit fuzzy, but what's certain is that someone's throat was inflamed and a whole bunch of people were itchy.
The maladies plaguing the Henry Villard are among the tens of thousands of medical mysteries contained in the dog-eared volumes stacked in Mimi Pezzuto's office. Pezzuto is an instructor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and the books are the prescription logs of the Hilo Drug Company, the town's first real pharmacy. Pasted neatly onto their pages are the prescriptions the pharmacy filled from 1899 through 1945.
It's a continuous record of how medicine was practiced in Hawai'i for forty-six years," says Pezzuto, who can open one of eleven volumes to any page and instantly lose herself. "It's also a kind of wonderful and fantastic genealogical record."
The now defunt pharmacy, located on a downtown street corner currently occupied by Cronies Bar & Grill, was a classic small-town gathering spot, with a lunch counter, soda fountain and sundries for sale. The elderly grandson of one of the owners donated the logs to the newly founded pharmacy school, which plans to display them someday.
In addition to the little mysteries, the books contain sweeping stories about the evolution of pharmacy, the supremacy of the plantation economy ad the ethnic and cultural infuences at work in the Islands. They're a who's who of old Hilo, loaded with Shipmans and Lymans, though some prescriptions are made out to people merely identified as "The Chinaman" or "The Puerto Rican woman in jail." Three prescriptions dated April 26, 1899, are made out to the "Ship Henry Villard." One is for a gargle. The other two are for liniment, including one made with tincture of benzoin, spirit of camphor, chloroform, capsicum, origanum and turpentine. The prescription calls for two pints, enough to treat a whole crew.
But for what?
"I'm going to go out on a limb and say bugs," says Pezzuto. "Whatever it is, there's a problem on that ship, and the turpentine tells me they really need to disinfect in a major way."