Bottled Up

James B. Davis' hobby is an Rx for boredom        

Published in 2008 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By Dan Millott on June 16, 2008

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Some lawyers like to fish or golf. James B. Davis, with Fort Lauderdale’s Gunster Yoakley & Stewart, likes to collect old medicine bottles. Some date back to the 1800s; some have the medications still inside.

How did one of the state’s top attorneys in estate planning, taxation and employee benefits latch onto such an unusual hobby?

 “I had an uncle, Robert Leiberz, who came to South Florida in 1949 and started a scuba diving shop in the Florida Keys,” Davis explains. “He would walk the beach where the Everglades and the Gulf meet and find medicine bottles.”

When the Davis family visited from Chicago, the young Davis became fascinated with his uncle’s growing collection. He eventually inherited 200 bottles in all shapes and sizes from his uncle, and has added more than 300 of his own.

To house the collection (or most of it), Davis acquired an antique English apothecary case, which he keeps at home. Some items were in his office until Hurricane Wilma took out a few windows there. Those treasures were moved to his home.

Some of the bottles have macabre stories attached to them. One is Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a medicine for teething babies. “In 1905, they put too much morphine in it; about 2,000 babies died from it. A magazine, Collier’s, ran an exposé on the deaths.”

That revelation prompted passage of the Food and Drugs Act of 1906, requiring the disclosure of medicine contents.

Davis is intrigued by the elaborate claims on some bottles. “A single medicine might claim it can cure consumption in humans, but it also claims it can cure maladies in horses.”

His most recent additions are a package of Asthmadore cigarettes, used by people who have asthma attacks; and an old “poison” bottle. “The poison bottle has a distinct shape, so if a person picks it up in the dark, they will know not to take it internally,” Davis says.

Davis’ collection includes drug manuals from the 1860s in addition to the medicine bottles. And he likes to remind admirers of his collection that Oz in The Wizard of Oz was really a traveling medicine salesman: a cure for every need—courage, a heart, a brain.

Despite his hobby, Davis never considered a career as a pharmacist. He studied accounting, earning his MBA at the University of Arkansas. Law school followed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Eventually, he says, he’ll will his collection to a medical school.

 “When the smoke clears,” he says, “we are just caretakers.” 

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