The First Woman Pharmacist in the Country

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– There is much healing power in nature. Cinnamon lowers blood pressure, sage has been linked to improving brain function and basil & mint aid in digestion. Herbs are more than seasoning, they are also healthy for us. A long while ago, one woman grew faith through the seeds in her garden.

By the 1700’s, King Louis XV began sending nuns to the new world to establish a hospital for the sick down in New Orleans. At this time, New Orleans was literally “new.” The second group of arrivals in 1732 would include Sister St. Francis Xavier Hebert on the manifest of the ship. Sister Hebert was the director of the French Royal Hospital and now she would be chartered with a new task of using the power of faith through botanical medicine, by growing herbs in a garden.

Sister Caroline Brockland is the Director of the National Shrine of the Lady of Promt Succor and a knowledgable about New Orleans’ archdiocese’s history and says, “there was a huge adjustment for the sisters. The climate was very different from France and people didn’t know about mosquito born illnesses then.  By the time Sister Francis Xavier had arrived, her talent was recognized immediately and she would make the rounds with the physician. As he would prescribe treatment, she would grow the herbs for medicinal purposes.”

Today, there is a replica herb garden at the historic, Ursuline Academy on state street. The original garden of Sister Hebert was in the French Quarter on the grounds of the Ursuline Convent.

Some of the herbs that were in her garden included marjoram used for convulsions, oregano usied for rheumatism and dill used to sooth someone to sleep. The leaves would often be crushed and administered as a hot tea.

“They were used for the medical purposes for the military hospital, for the sisters, as well as the students in the city.  Her medicine was very early on and Sister Hebert is considered the first female pharmacist in the country,” says Sister Brockland.

Every year, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans holds the Marian Feast of the Assumption of Mary, along with a blessing of the garden and sister Brockland says, “linking the celebration with the feast of Mary goes back  to medieval times where people would have celebrations for the harvest. It became usual to bless herbs on August 15.  This special date is when, by Catholic belief, Mary was taken body and soul into heaven at the time of her death. She was unusual in that the only other person we know that did that was Jesus.”

The story of Sister St. Francis Xavier Hebert is an important one as we celebrate the essential health care workers who are on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. Sister St. Francis Xavier Hebert paved the way for women who work in medicine today.

“As more and more careers open to women, we can be assured that, at least for the medical field in this country, it’s a tradition that goes back to 1727,” says Sister Caroline.


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