Pharmacy in World War II: The Pharmacist

AIS PharmacyIn my novel Anchor in the Storm, which released May 3, 2016, the heroine, Lillian Avery, serves as a pharmacist in a drugstore in Boston during World War II.

As a pharmacist, I found much about my profession has changed, but some things have not—the personal concern for patients, the difficult balance between health care and business, and the struggle to gain respect in the physician-dominated health-care world. Today I’ll discuss the role of the pharmacist in the 1940s, next we’ll visit the local drugstore and see how its role changed during the war, and then I’ll review the role of pharmacy in the US military.

USP 1942The Profession of Pharmacy in the 1940s

The 1940 US census counted over 80,000 pharmacists. The majority worked in retail pharmacy, with only 3000 working in hospitals. In fact, less than half of hospitals had a pharmacist on staff.

A cornerstone of pharmacy had always been compounding, the practice of mixing a prescription from raw ingredients. Pharmacists made creams, ointments, elixirs, suspensions, capsules, tablets, suppositories, and powder papers. Every pharmacist owned a copy of the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) guide—the 11th Edition (1937) or 12th Edition (1942), which provided chemical data on each substance. By the 1940s, pharmacists did less compounding—about 70 percent of prescriptions were filled with manufactured dosage forms.

In the 1940s, the pharmacist was a vital member of the community. Often viewed as more accessible than physicians, pharmacists were relied upon for health information and the treatment of minor ailments.

Job I fit posterEducation and Licensing

The first four-year Bachelor’s of Science degree in pharmacy was offered by Ohio State University in 1925. The four-year program became mandatory with the incoming class of 1932. Therefore, during World War II, some pharmacists did not have college degrees, but the younger ones did.

In 1942, sixty-eight colleges of pharmacy operated in the United States. In addition to general education requirements, pharmacy students studied pharmacy, pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacognosy (deriving pharmaceuticals from raw substances, such as plants), pharmacology (the effect of a drug on the body), and business. To increase the chance that a student would finish his degree before being drafted, most colleges of pharmacy adopted a year-round, three-year program during the war.

Each state had its own licensing requirements and examinations, and there was no reciprocity between states. For example, a pharmacist licensed in California had to take a new set of examinations if he moved to Michigan.

Japanese-Americans Dr. K. H. Taria and pharmacist Tom Arase at work, Jerome War Relocation Center, Arkansas, 17 Nov 1942 (US National Archives)

Japanese-Americans Dr. K. H. Taria and pharmacist Tom Arase at work, Jerome War Relocation Center, Arkansas, 17 Nov 1942 (US National Archives)

Manpower Shortage

In a nation of 130 million, over 11 million would serve in the armed forces during the course of the war. This produced a manpower shortage on the home front, and pharmacy was not immune. As a class, pharmacists were not exempt from the draft, but local draft boards could declare individuals as “necessary men” if their enlistment would negatively affect the health of the community. During World War II between 10,000-14,000 pharmacists served in the military. Due to this loss, approximately 15 percent of drug stores closed during the war. The West Coast was hard hit when all Japanese-American pharmacists were forcibly interned.

However, more opportunities opened for women as colleges and employers actively recruited them. While only 4 percent of pharmacists in 1940 were female, the percentage of female pharmacy students rose above 15 percent during the war. See my article on Women Pharmacists in World War II.

Doctors ScarceEffects of the War

Due to store closures, the average store filled 13 percent more prescriptions than before the war. This increase in workload was balanced by depletion of other goods due to rationing and shortages. In addition, citizens were encouraged to take better care of their health so they could contribute to the war effort, which led to an increase in physician visits. Overworked physicians dispensed fewer drugs from their offices and sent more patients to pharmacies. As a result, the average drugstore enjoyed an 80 percent increase in sales during the war.

Pharmacists dealt with shortages of ingredients and medications. A serious shortage of quinine, used to treat malaria, led the military to collect the majority of the nation’s quinine stock. Also, shortages of alcohol, sugar, and glycerin taxed the ability of pharmacists to compound. Each pharmacy received a ration of ten pounds of sugar a week for compounding purposes.


My main source was this excellent, comprehensive, and well-researched book: Worthen, Dennis B. Pharmacy in World War II. New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004.

http://www.lloydlibrary.org (Website of the Lloyd Library and Museum, which has many articles and resources on the history of pharmacy).

United States Pharmacopoeial Convention. The Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America, Twelfth Edition. Easton PA: Mack Printing Company, 1 November 1942.

5 Responses to “Pharmacy in World War II: The Pharmacist”

  1. Rachel Dixon

    I just finished Anchoring the Storm last night (stayed up waaay past my bed time lol), I love all the research posts you have! Makes the history buff in me get all giddy with knowledge haha! 😉 AMAZING book! Definitely one of my favorites of the year! <3

  2. Gretchen K Engel

    I never would have guessed that 70% of prescriptions were filled with manufactured drugs during WWII. I would have assumed a lot more compounding occurred back then.
    I love the level of research you do for your novels.