Celebrating the Influence of Female Pharmacists
For over 100 years, International Women’s Day has recognized the achievements of women around the world. On Tuesday, March 8, millions of women gather ‘round, step up, and speak out in support of women’s equality. International Women’s Day advocates for women in all areas of life — in the house, at the office, and even in spaces like independent pharmacy.
This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the contributions of women who have made their mark on the world, and who have made their mark on independent pharmacy. Because of their courage, creativity, and tireless drive for change, we can envision a more inclusive healthcare system for all.
To celebrate the day, we recognize the contributions of these women: in the past, present, and especially in the future. Happy International Women’s Day!
When it comes to pharmacy, women dominate the field — but it wasn’t always that way.
We can thank Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf for turning the tide. Greenleaf, a Boston native and mother of 12, opened her own apothecary in 1727 in Boston, effectively becoming the mother of modern American pharmacy. At the time, Greenleaf was the only female among 32 New England apothecaries, but her legacy lived on.
Today, the majority of pharmacists are women (over 55%), and that number is only growing.
Over 100 years after Greenleaf made history, one woman, Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi, made it her mission to do the same.
In the midst of a male-centric sphere, Jacobi was the first woman to graduate from a school of pharmacy. In 1863, she received her degree from the New York College of Pharmacy.
Only a year later, in 1864, she became a physician and helped develop pediatrics as a specialty.
All throughout her career, though, Jacobi was especially interested in equality for healthcare professionals. She even founded the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women in 1872, which put countless healthcare professionals on the path to success.
Continuing on the education train, one degree wasn’t enough for one woman.
Nellie Wakeman dreamed of entering academia and shaping the science behind pharmacy. In 1913, she received a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin and became the first woman to receive a doctorate degree in a pharmacy discipline.
Wakeman went on to serve as a university faculty member at the Univeristy of Washington, actively encouraging women to explore graduate education.
For other women, ownership took precedence over education. This is especially impressive given that, in the 19th century, most women weren’t business owners — but Margaret Cornelius “Cora” Dow didn’t mind.
Dow graduated from the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy in 1888, then assumed responsibility for her father’s store. Later in life, she went on to own 11 pharmacies, a warehouse, and even an ice cream factory: making her the first female chain pharmacy owner in the United States.
With so much on her plate, let’s hope she had time to indulge in a sweet treat or two.
For other women, ownership wasn’t an easy road, but they made it happen anyway.
Julia Pearl Hughes was the first Black female pharmacist to own and operate a pharmacy in Philadelphia, PA — and she’s believed to be the first to do so in the entire country. Hughes graduated from Howard University with her pharmacy degree in 1897, then did postgraduate work at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (now the University of the Sciences).
After finishing her education, she went on to open her own drug store, Hughes Pharmacy, in 1899. And if that wasn’t enough, she even ran the hospital pharmacy at Frederick Douglas Hospital (now Mercy Douglas Hospital).
For Hughes, adversity was just a catalyst.
Black women didn’t stop there, though.
From leading a small pharmacy to leading the largest association of pharmacists in the country, Black women have made a name for themselves in the field. In 1979, Mary Munson Runge became the first woman — and the first Black American — to become president of the American Pharmacists Association.
Today, APhA is made up of more than 60,000 practice pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists, student pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and others interested in advancing the profession.
Some women didn’t just serve their communities: they served their country, too.
Katherine “Kay” Keating was a Navy WAVE radio operator during World War II. After the War, Keating went on to complete her pharmacy degree at the University of Colorado in 1948. Then, when she returned to active duty, she quickly moved up the ranks.
She became the first woman to rise from Seaman Recruit to Captain, as well as the first female pharmacist to become Captain in the Navy Medical Corps. Keating spent the rest of her career in the service and could often be found mentoring other pharmacists.
One woman used her knowledge of pharmacy to make an even greater impact on the entire healthcare system.
Gertrude “Trudy” Elion was a biochemist, pharmacologist, and researcher who worked in drug development. In 1944, Elion (along with her team) developed two pivotal anti-cancer drugs: tioguanine and mercaptopurine, which changed the way that cancer was treated forever.
After their initial discoveries, Trudy and her team went on to obtain 45 patents for drugs that treated conditions like leukemia, AIDS, malaria, gout, herpes, and organ rejection.
In 1988, Elion won the Nobel Prize for her lifelong work and distinguished achievement in medical development.
As a pharmacist, you’ve probably given your fair share of injectables: and you can thank one woman for creating the technology. Letitia Mumford Geer, a nurse and native New Yorker, filed a patent for a syringe design in 1896, changing the way that injections were given in the 20th century.
Geer’s syringe design included a cylinder, a piston rod, a handle, and a nozzle. The piston rod had a U-shaped handle for easier grip, and the handle was designed to be reached even from extreme positions. The hook at the free end of the syringe prevented hands from slipping.
Geer’s design got approval and was used for decades. It even laid the foundation for the modern-day syringe.
While she wasn’t a pharmacist, Grace Murray Hopper impacted the world of pharmacy through technology.
A computer scientist who helped design Harvard's Mark I Computer, Hopper also invented a compiler that could translate written language into computer code. She was a part of the team that developed COBOL, one of the first modern computer programming languages, and an early proponent of using technology to support other fields, like pharmacy.
On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of female pharmacists in the past — and continue to champion today (and tomorrow’s) pharmacists. Women are integral to pharmacy practice and to the healthcare system as a whole.
Today, our hats are off to women around the world. Here’s to you!