Early education of African American pharmacists

Written by | 3 Mar 2022 | 'In Discussion With'

A question from a student about the first African-American female pharmacist prompted Dr John Clark to investigate the education of African-American pharmacists; what he found surprised him and he ended up writing a book on the topic.

Dr Clark found that there was little published information about African-American pharmacists, especially in the post-civil war period, from 1865 onwards. “So why is that? I don’t know. It’s either that it was just deliberately ignored or people did not find it interesting or they were not aware. I was not even aware that there were schools that were dedicated to training African-American people. ….. I wonder sometimes why did I not know that when I was younger? Well, those things were not taught – we didn’t even know there were black pharmacy schools”, he says. In fact, he only learned about the existence of black pharmacy schools in the past ten years.

When a student asked him who the first African-American female pharmacist was he started to investigate and soon discovered that black pharmacy schools were started in about 1870. Reasoning that the first African-American female pharmacist must have come from one such school he set about trying to find out more. “I never intended to write the book …. but I spent so much time trying to find that one black female pharmacist and so I was able to recover some records from some of those schools. There was a total of seven schools that were formed after the civil war between 1870 and 1927. …. Two of those schools still exist today as Howard University and Xavier University in in New Orleans”, says Dr Clark.

“It actually started after the civil war when they could not get treatment for the black patients – black people – coming off the slave plantations. So, many of them started dying [once] they got off [the] plantations …… they couldn’t get health care, so that disparity is believed to have started then and continues to this day. …. I can see it in my clinic. Almost all of our diabetic patients …. are all Hispanic or from low- middle or low-income classes just like it was back in the post-slavery days. So it’s just that the disease states are different but the disparities are still there”, he says. He discovered that the first African-American woman to graduate as a pharmacist attended Meharry Pharmaceutical College (Nashville, Tennessee) and was awarded her degree in 1894.

Medical history books have tended to focus on physicians and scientists with little about pharmacists. Dr Clark says that his book, Early Education of African American Pharmacists 1870 – 1975, (published in 2021) has provided “a contribution to the literature now with the focus on African American or black pharmacists that that didn’t exist before”. Having worked closely with the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, he is confident that his book was the first to address this topic.

Asked whether the term ‘African-American’ or ‘black’ is preferred, Dr Clark says, “Our organisation prefers to use the term ‘black’, like black-American versus African American although I use both. When I use both terms, I’m referring to the same people. Now the contention with the use of African Americans oftentimes comes from black patients or black people who may be of mixed race or they may be from different ancestral backgrounds that they don’t consider to be African.”

John E Clark studied pharmacy at Southern University in Houston, Texas before completing residency training in Detroit, Michigan.  He holds a master’s degree in pharmaceutical administration a PharmD. For 18 years he worked at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami before taking up his current appointment at the University of South Florida College of Pharmacy in Tampa, Florida. You can find Dr John Clark’s book here.

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