Keeper of Cures

From tonics to elixirs, pharmacy historian Bill Soderlund has time in a bottle

YOU HAVE TO WANDER past the Tylenol, the Tums, and the Triaminic to see it, but along the back wall of Soderlund Village Drug in St. Peter sits the stuff that may well account for your existence. That is, the old-time remedies that kept your great-grandparents in good enough shape to ensure the family tree’s survival. Bottles of bromides for calming the nerves, giant jugs that simply say “microbe killer.” In rows of brown glass, they stand in sober contrast to the bright, promising packaging of today’s pharmaceutical wonders, reminders of an era when you could call a potion a “cure-all”—and some of the time it even worked. ¶ Bill Soderlund has spent years collecting and researching drugstore memorabilia, ever since he and his family took over St. Peter’s landmark Swedberg pharmacy in 1986. And while it’s easy to laugh at something like the Keeley Cure for Drunkenness, which contained cocaine and opium (“You’d be too stoned to drink!” Soderlund marvels), or the quaint chutzpah of a cure-all whose label depicts a man with a baseball bat taking a whack at a skeletal grim reaper, Soderlund says the old-time druggists weren’t always so far off. Many of the remedies have come back into vogue, if for more specialized purposes. For instance, the use of arsenic in something called Fowler’s Solution, which was used to treat everything from syphilis to tumors (“They’d give you little doses over time until it looked like you were about to die,” says Soderlund, “and that’s when they knew it was working”), seems dangerously stupid to us now. But in fact, arsenic is now used to treat leukemia. Even Spanish Fly, the ancient aphrodisiac, is back in business—as a wart dissolver.

Soderlund’s family has been in the drugstore trade since 1899, when his great-great aunt, a Swedish immigrant, began working at a pharmacy in the West Bank area of Minneapolis, making cures invented in the old country. Back then, pharmacists made mostly “crude drugs,” medications created from herbs and plants they would often grow themselves. Soderlund’s father opened the first pharmacies in Target stores in the 1960s, and was one of the first pharmacists in the country to promote generic drugs.

Soderlund lately has done well in the veterinary market—about 20 percent of the nation’s pigs have had a drug from its on-site labs, for example. To some extent, Soderlund, with help from his father and brother, maintains the retail store simply as a service, and for old-time’s sake. The Soderlunds are proud of their reputation for compounding—literally making medications on the premises, uncommon in this age of giant drug manufacturers. And they appreciate a small-town drugstore’s role as a gathering place. An antique soda fountain, complete with red barstools, anchors a corner of the store. Here, visitors are offered a free glass of 1919 Root Beer and some casual conversation, hospitality being one cure-all the Soderlund family never stopped dispensing.

Tim Gihring is senior writer of Minnesota Monthly.