Born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1726, Hugh Mercer trained in medicine at Marischal College and became an assistant surgeon in the army of Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. For his participation in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and as a survivor of the Battle of Culloden, Mercer was hunted by the British as a rebel and was forced to flee to America in 1747. Settling near Philadelphia, Mercer practiced medicine for the next eight years. During the French and Indian War, Mercer joined the military as a captain, earning a silver medal and the title of Colonel after he was wounded in 1756 and made his way alone on foot back to Philadelphia. Either through the military or by their mutual participation in the local Masonic lodge, Colonels Hugh Mercer and George Washington met and became friends. Washington convinced Mercer to move his medical practice to Fredericksburg in 1761.
From 1771 to 1775, Mercer and another physician, Ewen Clements, operated an apothecary shop and medical office together. Mercer's patients ranged from the Washington family and prestigious merchants to tradesmen, actors, and slaves. Medicine in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries centered around balancing the four humors or bodily fluids, and like other physicians of the time, Mercer's treatments included bleeding and purging in order to achieve this equilibrium. Some of the medicines dispensed in the apothecary include purging pills, laudanum, magnesia, snakeroot, crab claws, stomach elixirs, and saline mixtures, as well as herbal remedies. Mercer and his partner also pulled teeth, set broken bones, and performed amputations.
Along with George Washington, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe, Hugh Mercer attended gatherings in the Rising Sun Tavern to discuss American Independence. When the Revolution began, Mercer became a Brigadier General in the Continental Army, playing a key role in both battles of Trenton. In 1777, during the Battle of Princeton, he was mistaken by the British for General Washington and stabbed multiple times. Mercer survived for several days in a field hospital, under the care of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
The Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop museum is not in Mercer's original
building, though it does sit catty-cornered to the original shop location. The restored
museum building was constructed around 1772, and housed Henry Mitchell's
tobacco shop, where Mercer was a customer. In addition to the displays, there
are guided tours in period costume, and a garden behind the museum where
medicinal herbs used in Mercer's time are grown.