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80 Years of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s note: On January 1, 2021, the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP) joined the Alcohol and Drugs History Society as a co-sponsor of Points. On the occasion of AIHP’s 80th birthday on Friday, January 22, 2021, we would like to take the opportunity to introduce the past and the present of AIHP to the readers of Points. Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Higby, the former longtime AIHP Executive Director. In his current roles as the AIHP Fischelis Scholar and as a Senior Curator at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy, Dr. Higby continues to manage and maintain the historical collections at AIHP and the UW School of Pharmacy in his semi-retirement. Happy Birthday, AIHP!

AIHP Logo

On January 22, 1941, six men gathered in a pharmacognosy laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and founded the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. Its explicit purpose was to serve as a center for pharmaco-historical research and information. Its implicit purpose was to provide an academic home for scholar-pharmacist Dr. George Urdang, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Urdang had fled Berlin in 1938, making his way to New York, where he obtained an American pharmacy degree from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy at age 57.

Soon afterward, in the summer of 1939, Wisconsin pharmacy professor Edward Kremers recruited Urdang to Madison to help complete a comprehensive history of pharmacy textbook based on materials Kremers had been collecting for decades. After the publication of Kremers and Urdang’s History of Pharmacy by Lippincott in 1940, the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy was established with Urdang as its first Director.

Later in 1941, an anonymous dispatch—no doubt written by Urdang—announced the establishment of the new historical society in Madison, Wisconsin, and outlined the purposes of this “center for all pharmaco-historical work”:

  1. To aid in the collection, selection, arrangement, and exhibition of pharmaceutico-historical material and—as far as possible—to catalogue and to inventory this material;

  2. To give the research worker in the field of historical pharmacy the possibility to discuss his projects, to get advice on literature, and to publish the manuscripts concerned;

  3. To furnish information and means for historical instruction at the Colleges of Pharmacy;

  4. To furnish material for popular pharmaceutico-historical information directly to the general public (journals, newspapers, etc.), or to individual pharmacists for use in their social or professional relations;

  5. To cooperate with the historians of the related sciences and professions, especially of medicine, in order to promote the mutual scientific, professional, and social understanding and progress derived from such a cooperation.

George Urdang and students in 1950

In addition to serving as AIHP’s Director, George Urdang (second from right) was hired as a Professor by the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy in 1947. He soon established the first History of Pharmacy graduate program in the United States, and he is seen here with his first cohort of graduate students, including future AIHP Executive Director Glenn Sonnedecker (left). Image courtesy of AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

During the next four decades, the Institute pursued these purposes largely through the individual efforts of Urdang and his successors as AIHP Directors, Glenn Sonnedecker and John Parascandola. Cash poor, the Institute survived with support from the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy as well as a small and loyal membership of about one thousand pharmacists, historians, and collectors.

Two pharmacy organizations, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), provided the Institute with important venues for the dissemination of historical research and writing. Each year, in conjunction with the APhA convention, AIHP held an annual meeting, which usually included symposia, podium sessions, and exhibits. And before the establishment of AIHP’s own journal, Pharmacy in History, in 1959, AACP’s American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education regularly published articles authored by Urdang, Sonnedecker, and other scholars affiliated with the Institute.

The financial situation for the Institute changed dramatically in 1983 with the death of Juanita Deer Fischelis, widow of pharmacy leader Robert P. Fischelis. Following his wishes, she bequeathed her estate to the Institute, thereby securing the organization’s future stability and providing opportunities for new programming.

The Institute issued grants to graduate students and established scholars pursuing pharmaco-historical subjects, published books in the field of pharmacy ethics as well as history, and revamped the quarterly Pharmacy in History. Incidentally, the theme for AIHP’s 2021 PhD Research Support Grant program is “Barriers & Margins” and the deadline for receipt of applications is March 1, 2021.

After John Scarborough’s brief tenure as AIHP Executive Director (1985–86), Greg Higby headed the Institute for the next thirty-two years. Continuing its traditional programs of collecting, publishing, and outreach, the Institute fostered the establishment and growth of the History of Pharmacy Special Interest Group within AACP and built its internet presence at aihp.org To ensure the Institute’s financial future and its position within the pharmacy profession, AIHP president William Zellmer initiated the National Pharmacy Association Sponsorship program.

In recent years, the Institute worked with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy to create an endowed professorship, the George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy. The generosity of Robert and Leslie Buerki as well as many Institute members, funded the position, the only History of Pharmacy chair in the United States.

At present, Prof. Lucas Richert holds the Urdang chair and serves as AIHP’s Historical Director, working with Executive Director Dennis Birke and President W. Clarke Ridgway to form an active leadership team ably assisted by staff members Greg Bond, Beth Fisher, and Kristen Huset. Through its new partnership with the Alcohol and Drugs History Society and the Points blog, the Institute is excited to further expand its exploration of the fascinating histories of all drug substances.

AIHP 10th Anniversary Conference

AIHP’s virtual conferences during the Covid pandemic have been successful, but we also look forward to again being able to meet in person—like the AIHP 10th anniversary conference in 1951 seen here. George Urdang stands on the right. Image courtesy of AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

Today, in the midst of the Covid crisis and its various challenges, AIHP continues to carry on its mission to “advance knowledge and understanding of the history of pharmacy and medicines.” AIHP is currently sponsoring, for example, a project to collect contemporary records that document pharmacy’s response to Covid-19. Virtual seminars and conferences—like summer 2020’s Edward Kremers Seminar in the History of Pharmacy & Drugs and the New Social History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals Conference in fall 2020—have attracted a world-wide audience and allowed AIHP to connect with its membership and expand its audience during this time of social distancing.

After 60 years of self-publishing its journal Pharmacy in History, AIHP has recently entered into a new publishing partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. In conjunction with the transition to UW Press, the Institute will be changing the title of its journal to History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals to better reflect the expanded scope and broader focus of AIHP’s contemporary historical activities. Look for the inaugural issue of History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals in the early summer of 2021!

Looking back 80 year later, AIHP’s original purposes as outlined by George Urdang remain relevant. The Institute continues as both a research center and a membership association and still prioritizes publishing, programming, and collections. In 1941, the focus was on the history of pharmacists and their work. Today, the scope of the Institute’s efforts has broadened to include the historical aspects of the entire pharmaceutical enterprise—in addition to the critical role of pharmacists in modern society.

After 80 years, AIHP remains committed to preserving, documenting, and explaining the history of pharmacy and pharmaceuticals and firmly believes that history can provide valuable insights for the understanding of contemporary issues and debates.

In 2021—just as in 1941—the Institute continues to be inspired and motivated by George Urdang’s bold vision:

“The aim of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy is to equip pharmacists for citizenship in the world of intellectual and moral responsibility by making them familiar with the non-technical aspects and humanistic ramifications of the profession, and to do pharmacy’s share in the cooperative endeavor for making the historical record of world civilization as complete as possible.” —George Urdang

Happy 80th birthday, AIHP!

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