In observance of Juneteenth, we want to honor the heritage of black pharmacists and scientists who have contributed in great means to the profession of pharmacy.
Anna Louis James
The daughter of a slave, Anna Louise James didn’t just break barriers; she also shattered glass ceilings. Not only was she the first Black woman to graduate from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, but she was also one of the very first Black women to be a licensed pharmacist in the United States.
Interested in the natural sciences from a young age, James graduated high school in Connecticut in 1905 with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. Her ambitions took her to the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy in New York. After several years of study, she graduated in 1908, becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the revered institution.
She returned to Connecticut to work at her brother-in-law’s pharmacy, making her the first Black woman to be a licensed pharmacist in Connecticut, and one of the first in the entire country. When World War I broke out, her brother-in-law was called into action and transferred operations over to “Miss James,” as the local community called her, in 1917. She would run the pharmacy until 1967. Over those 50 years, James and her pharmacy gained a reputation for generosity, finding ways to get people their medication even if they couldn’t always pay.
Anna Louise James lived in the back of the pharmacy until her death in 1977 at the age of 91. Her story became an inspiration for other Black women driven to pursue a career in pharmacy in the decades to follow. In 1994, the James Pharmacy was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
James McCune Smith
Born into slavery 50 years before the American Civil War, James McCune Smith was determined to rise above his station. He is widely credited as the first African American to earn a medical degree, as well as the first African American to own and operate his own pharmacy.
Barred from attending college in the United States due to the color of his skin, Smith crossed the ocean to become a student at Glasgow University in Scotland where he earned three degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. After a brief internship in Paris, Smith returned to America, where he opened a medical office and pharmacy at 55 West Broadway in New York City that served patients of all races.
He parlayed his reputation in the medical field into becoming a prominent abolitionist and activist. Smith called on his medical and scientific training to write papers and deliver powerful speeches pushing back on widely held stereotypes of the day, including the ideas that head shape and size dictated the intelligence of different racial groups and that emancipated Northern Blacks were more prone to crime and vice than their enslaved brethren.
Smith died in 1865 of congestive heart failure. Nineteen days later, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery. In 2018, 153 years later, the New York Academy of Medicine posthumously inducted Smith as a Fellow to the Academy. He had applied for membership in 1847.
Mary Munson Runge
It’s tempting to think that all color barriers were crossed long ago. But the story of Mary Munson Runge is a good reminder that progress is always being fought for and won, even in more modern times. In 1979, Runge was elected president of the APhA — the first woman and the first African American to be named to the role.⠀
Runge was born in 1928 on the fringes of the Louisiana delta to another pioneer. Her father was the town’s first black pharmacist. Following in her father’s footsteps, Runge graduated Xavier University of Louisiana College in 1948, before moving to California. She began her career as a hospital pharmacist, before transitioning to becoming a community pharmacist, helping poorer people obtain medication.⠀
After being sworn in as president of the American Pharmacists Association, she worked tirelessly to advocate for the profession, including efforts to bring more women and minorities into its fold. After her two terms ended in 1981, she continued to practice while also serving on a variety of federal committees over the next two decades.⠀
Runge was inducted into the California Pharmacists Association’s Hall of Fame in 1997. After her death in 2014, the American Pharmacists Association established a scholarship in her name.⠀
Born in Cordele, Georgia, in 1906, Dr. Sidney Barthwell owned the largest Black-owned pharmacy chain in the U.S. Barthwell attended the Detroit Technical Institute (now Wayne State University) and graduated with a pharmacy degree in 1929. After graduating, Barthwell faced difficulty finding work due to racial discrimination. He was eventually hired to work at an underperforming pharmacy in Detroit and, in 1933, bought the pharmacy himself and renamed it Barthwell Drugs. ⠀
Dr. Barthwell was well known as a respected entrepreneur and businessman. Barthwell Drugs became the biggest drugstore chain of Black ownership, with 13 locations throughout Detroit. He helped other African Americans in his community find work. He was also a member of the NAACP, president of the Booker T. Washington Business Association, and the first African American member of the Detroit Retail Druggist Association.
Dr. Charles A Champion
Champion graduated from Xavier University and was drafted into the United States Army where he first worked as an Army pharmacist in Germany.⠀
When Champion returned home in 1957, he started working at John Gaston hospital — now known as Regional One Health. It Is here where he became the first Black pharmacist to work at a hospital in the city of Memphis.⠀
In 1981, Dr. Champion opened Champion Pharmacy and Herbs. Ten years later, the store moved to its current location on Elvis Presley Blvd. ⠀
He had a long tradition of serving and providing a holistic approach to healing to help bridge gaps in healthcare access. He was a trusted advisor for common ailments and was honored among his peers with several awards. ⠀
These include: The 2022 University of Memphis Arthur S. Holman Lifetime Achievement Award and 2022 Memphis Heritage Trail Trailblazer Award. The same year, the House of Black Churches at Memphis Theological Seminary established the Dr. Charles A. Champion Healthcare Award and made Dr. Champion the inaugural recipient. ⠀
He also received the 2010 Bowl of Hygeia Award for Outstanding Community Service as a Pharmacist, the 2015 Tennessee Pharmacists Association (TPA) Shelby Rhinehart Public Service Lifetime Achievement Award and 1987 TPA Pharmacist of the Year Award. He received the1996 Memphis Theological Seminary Dr. Henry L. Starks Distinguished Service Award, the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Health Profession Award, and the National Pharmaceutical Association Outstanding Service Award.