Pharmacy in World War II: The Pharmacist

I’m so pleased to have Sarah Sundin back. This week, she’ll be discussing the role of the pharmacist on several different fronts during WWII. I’ve found this information absolutely fascinating!

Welcome back, Sarah.

In the 1940s, the local drug store was more than just a place to get prescriptions filled and pick up toothpaste—it was a gathering place. If you’re writing a novel set during World War II, it helps to have an understanding of this institution.

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.  On February 16th I’ll describe the local drug store and how its role changed during the war, and on February 18th, I’ll review the rather shocking role—or lack thereof—of pharmacy and pharmacists in the US military.

The Profession of Pharmacy in the 1940s

Although the term of druggist has been abandoned by the profession—please do not use it in your contemporary novels—in the 1940s, the terms of pharmacist and druggist were interchangeable. 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. Only pharmaceutical grade ingredients could be used, approved by the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) or the NF (National Formulary). Every pharmacist owned a copy of the USP guide—the 11th Edition (1937) or 12th Edition (1942). The USP guide provides chemical data on each substance. By the 1940s, pharmacists compounded less—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.

Education 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. The doctor of pharmacy (Pharm. D.) degree was first offered by the University of California, San Francisco in 1955, and did not become mandatory until 2000. Therefore, in World War II, pharmacists were addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss.”

In 1942, sixty-eight colleges of pharmacy operated in the United States. In addition to general education requirements, pharmacy students also 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.

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 less than 5 percent of pharmacists in 1940 were female, the percentage of female pharmacy students rose above 15 percent during the war.

Effects 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 drug store 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. (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.
Sarah Sundin is the author of the Waves of Freedom series (Through Waters Deep, 2015, Anchor in the Storm, 2016, and When Tides Turn, March 2017), the Wings of the Nightingale series, and the Wings of Glory series, all from Revell. In addition she has a novella in Where Treetops Glisten (WaterBrook).

Her novel Through Waters Deep was a 2016 Carol Award Finalist, won the 2016 INSPY Award, and was named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” Her novella “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in Where Treetops Glisten was a finalist for the 2015 Carol Award. In 2014, On Distant Shores was a double finalist for the Golden Scroll Awards from both AWSA and the Christian Authors Network. In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference.

A mother of three, Sarah lives in northern California, works on-call as a hospital pharmacist, and teaches Sunday school and women’s Bible studies. She enjoys speaking to community, church, and writers’ groups, and has been well received.

Reader Question: Medication Charges for OR

This reader question was asked in the comments and Kim gave a very detailed answer that I thought should be posted as well.

Susan Asks:

I have a question. I have had several surgeries, including foot surgery where a block was used. The list of medications on my bill were astounding! I understand the induction agent, narcotics and versed, but what is the anesthesia gas for? Just to keep the patient asleep? I love these posts!

Kim Says:

Hi, Susan!

Thanks for your question. One of the fascinating things about anesthesia is that there are as many different ways to give an anesthetic as there are different types of patients. Anesthesia is based on the type of surgery you are having, your own health/anesthetic surgery, preferences of the surgeon as well as the experience and preference of your anesthetist.

In the old days, you breathed in an anesthetic gas until you were asleep. If you ever had anesthesia with ether, you’d understand why we’ve continually looked for better ways to render patients insensible to pain.

Another way was to “block” the pain impulses by the use of local anesthesia either as a “field block” (blocking the area similar to what a dentist does), as a spinal or epidural, or a block of an extremity. One thing we’ve learned through the study of pain is that blocking the area with a local anesthetic decreases the over all amount of pain a person has post op. Because the nerve impulses to the brain are blocked, the brain doesn’t respond by releasing stress chemicals that cause inflammation until after the local wears off which means that less pain and inflammation happens over all.

So the “modern” way of doing an anesthetic has changed to what we call a multi-modal approach.

1) The block was to prevent pain and to keep you comfortable for a time after surgery.

2) The induction agent (versus breathing enough gas to go to sleep which isn’t especially pleasant in an adult) puts you to sleep initially, while the Versed (an amnestic) and narcotic (pain relief) provide other pieces of the anesthetic puzzle.

3) The anesthetic gas is added after you are asleep from the induction agent and also provides amnesia and pain relief. It also helps to control blood pressure changes from surgical stimulation or the use of a tourniquet in extremity surgery (used to keep the sterile field “bloodless” and expedite the surgery).

With the advent of outpatient surgery, patients no longer snooze the day away waking up from their anesthetic. They need to be deeply asleep and then awake enough to go home in a matter of hours. Using a multi-modal approach (using a combination of drugs for different reasons) is much more effective than each of those drugs by themselves.

For example, without the use of the anesthetic gas, much more narcotic is required. Without the narcotic, much more gas is required to do the same job. Every drug has side effects which increase with dosage and in the case of anesthetic gasses, time.

Using a combination of drugs allows us to keep the side effects to a minimum. It is a common misconception that we give a patient an anesthetic drug and then coast through the surgery and like magic they wake up when it is over. Even surgeons think so.

In reality, though it seems like a large number of medicines, each one has a specific purpose and one of the reasons anesthesia is safer and more pleasant than the old days.

Probably more info than you wanted, but I enjoy when people who are interested in what I do. I’ve been a CRNA for 34 years and I still find it absolutely fascinating!

Kimberly Zweygardt is a Christ follower, wife, mother, writer, blogger, dramatist, worship leader, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, a fused glass artist and a taker of naps. Her writings have been featured in Rural Roads Magazine, The Rocking Chair Reader, and Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living Series on Heart Disease. She is the author of Stories From the Well and Ashes to Beauty, The Real Cinderella Story and was featured in Stories of Remarkable Women of Faith. She lives in Northwest Kansas with her husband where their nest is empty but their lives are full. For more information:

Author Beware: Movie Patriots Day and Narcotic Distribution

Recently, I took in the movie Patriots Day starring Mark Wahlberg that follows the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing that took place on Monday, April 15, 2013.

The movie is insightful and entertaining and I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything by discussing it here. Plus, the issue I’m highlighting really has nothing to do with the events of the actual bombing.

Mark Wahlberg plays Sergeant Tommy Saunders. In the movie, he is suffering from some sort of chronic knee injury. He walks with a limp and is looking to get off patrol for this very reason.

In the aftermath of the bombing, he goes to one of the local hospitals to interview witnesses. He approaches the nurses’ desk and asks a nurse for something for pain. The nurse offers Lortab, a scheduled narcotic, but he declines and asks for Tylenol or ibuprofen instead.

Yea— just no.

Even in a disaster, a nurse is not going to be handing out scheduled medication for several reasons that I’ll highlight below.

First, what are scheduled medications? The FDA schedules medications that have the potential to be addictive. Schedule I medications are highly addictive and have no currently accepted medical use— drugs like heroin and LSD. Lortab is a Schedule II medication– which means it’s highly addictive, but does have a medical use. All scheduled drugs in the hospital have a process where they are counted to ensure no one is diverting (not using the medication for its intended purpose) the medication.

Narcotics counts where there is less drug there than should be are taken VERY seriously. Even in a disaster situation, these would be watched closely. The nurse would not be handed a bottle of Lortab to dispense as she wishes.

Why would a nurse not be able to simply give this police officer Lortab in a critical incident where there is a large influx of patients and things are generally crazy?

1. The police officer is not a patient. Any medical treatment rendered by the hospital should be documented. Now, I could see the nurse tossing him a few Ibuprofen considering these circumstances. In all likelihood, this would be frowned upon but understood. Not so with a narcotic.

2. It is outside the nurse’s scope of practice. Scope of practice deals with what a provider can and cannot do. It is generally determined by the state licensing board where the individual practices. Scope of practice issues tend to be a big pitfall for writers everywhere and I’ve blogged about it previously here and here.  A nurse cannot order medication for a patient without a standing protocol in place— this is a provider function. A nurse also cannot dispense medication— this is the function of a pharmacist. Even with automated medication dispensing systems, there is usually a pharmacy double check before the medication can be pulled from the machine. In an emergency this function can be overridden, but that is highly frowned upon.

Overall, Patriots Day was an entertaining film and most probably won’t even realize this error. However, in writing please keep in mind scope of practice issues. Not every medical provider can do every medical function— even during a disaster.

Author Question: Small Town Care for Complex Medical Patient

Holly Asks:

In the very first chapter of the story I’m working on, the main character gets sent to hospital. The character in question is a sixteen-year-old female who has been missing for eleven years. She is found in the woods surrounding the town it’s set in and presents naked, severely malnourished, heavily pregnant, and with a gunshot wound to her leg. There are other superficial injuries that one might get when attempting to flee nude through dense woodland. The town and hospital are relatively small. The hospital has seventy-five doctors and forty-five nurses on staff and it’s in a fairly isolated location.

I’ve got a few questions:

1 – Would the hospital I’ve  described be able to treat a patient in this condition? What would be the basics of this treatment?

2 – Is there a procedure hospitals have in place for patients who act violent? My character hasn’t been around people for eleven years. She’s borderline feral and she attacks a doctor when she wakes up. Since she’s pregnant, I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to sedate her.

3 – Can doctors share information about patients with police officers? Since she’s a missing person and a minor, the police are going to be involved but I’m not sure how much doctors can share.

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Holly! Thanks so much for sending me your questions. These are complex ones for sure.

Question #1: Could a small town rural hospital be able to care for this patient? Maybe. One thing I want to clear up is your ratio of doctors to nurses. Usually, there are many more nurses in a given area than physicians so maybe adjust your numbers if you’re making a point about this in your novel.

When I first read your question, I thought the medical care aspects might be cared for by a rural hospital, but it was going to be a tough undertaking. This victimized teen is going to need, at a minimum, five services to be in place to stay in a rural hospital— a good general practitioner (to manage her overall care), a nutritionist (for the malnutrition), a surgeon (surgical evaluation of the gunshot wound), an OB/GYN (for the pregnancy), and a psychiatrist and/or psychologist (just because she’s been held hostage for eleven years.) Already that list is going to be tough and likely insurmountable for the area you mention.

What tilts the balance for me in saying she would have to go to a large, urban center are the psychiatric issues you mention in your second question.

Question #2: Yes, hospitals have procedures in place for violent patients, but the staff and mental health care specialists who will be required to manage her care are likely to be found at an urban center.

Violent patients are generally managed in a step-wise fashion. Can talking to them de-escalate their behavior? Is there something they’re requesting that we can give them to get them to calm down? Does she have some sort of object (like a stuffed toy) that giving her would help if it was safe for her to have?

If it’s more a fight response because of what she’s been through and she’s a danger to herself and others then she’d have to be restrained and placed under one on one observation. This type of patient can tax staffing resources which is another reason why transfer might be best.

Each drug is given a category related to its potential to harm a developing baby that is easily searchable via the internet. The categories go from Category A to Category D. Category A is deemed safest to D which has proven adverse reactions in humans. Just because a drug is listed as Category C or D doesn’t mean it might not be used. Several things would be taken into account— what we call risks versus benefits.

For instance, if she was late in her pregnancy, the doctors could risk it because the baby is fully developed. This is tough, though. Many physicians will err on the side of what’s safest for the pregnancy. However, you can’t leave a patient restrained forever and some form of psychiatric medication could be warranted here.

Question #3: Can doctors share information with police officers? Yes, they can. There is actually a special provision listed in HIPAA (the law that rules over patient privacy) that allows for this. Police officers mostly need to document what “serious bodily injury” the patient has suffered so they can determine what criminal charges to bring against a perpetrator.

The other thing to consider is the size of the local police department. Small towns may not even have their own police department but rely on the county sheriff’s office and/or state police to handle the investigation of this crime.

I actually think the best place for this teen would be the closest children’s hospital. Children’s hospitals have specialized teams in place to manage issues particularly around crimes against children. The caveat would be her pregnancy— for which she would likely deliver at an adult center.

Hope this helps and good luck with your story!

Drug Warning: Flakka Insanity

There is a new drug on the market— not a legal drug, but a new synthetic drug called Flakka that is creating havoc in south Florida and could be coming to your hometown.

What’s causing concern among law enforcement is that Flakka addiction became endemic in Broward County in a matter of months versus drugs like cocaine that took decades.

Flakka (alpha-PVP) is a synthetic crystal manufactured in China and sold via the internet. It arrived on the scene in Florida in 2014. It is ten times stronger than cocaine and far cheaper that cocaine, crack, and heroine.

Users of Flakka can suffer from dementia, psychosis, and paranoia. One of the biggest side effects is a state excited delirium which causes users to feel invincible yet deathly afraid. In this state, they can exhibit superhuman strength where it could take six to eight police officers to restrain them. Excited delirium leads to a rise in body temperature that can lead to heat exhaustion and even cardiac arrest. Some users have described this state as feeling like their “blood is on fire” and strip off their clothes because of it.

What’s also concerning law enforcement are the accidental and self-inflicted wounds that are killing Flakka users— more than forty deaths in the last year in Broward County alone.

Even more concerning is the after effects of the drug once a user stops. Some addicts suffer long term acute lapses in memory, difficulty articulating words, and poor concentration. Its effects on unborn babies is unknown, but one nine week premature infant boy has died with Flakka in his system.

There is no known reversal agent for the drug, only symptomatic support can be given.

Be on the lookout for this deadly drug in your community.

Information for this blog post largely came from the show Intervention which aired November 15, 2016.

The Art of Forging Prescriptions

I’m so excited to host future author and pharmacist, Amy Gale, who will be blogging on the topic of falsifying prescriptions.

Welcome, Amy!

Prescription drug abuse is rapidly growing. A large amount of popular “street drugs” are medications prescribed on a daily basis. It seems more and more people are trying to falsify prescriptions and the new trend is to “pop pills” to get high. Let’s hope this trend is short lived. So, how do you forge a prescription?

The most commonly forged prescriptions are Class III to Class V narcotics. Some popular examples are Vicodin, Valium, and Xanax.  These prescriptions are easier to falsify because they can be forged in two ways. 

First, a prescription can be called in to the pharmacy. As long as the caller has all the pertinent information and knows the physicians DEA number, the prescription is deemed valid. If a pharmacist feels the prescription is falsified, a call to the physician is warranted to verify the information. Some drug abusers are so good at impersonating a physician or office; they can fool even a seasoned pharmacist.
Second, a written prescription can be presented to a pharmacy associate. It must contain all pertinent information such as patient’s name, address, phone number, drug name, quantity, directions for use, refills, physician’s name, and physicians DEA number. A prescription can be written for any medication, but Class II narcotics (some examples are Percocet, Oxycontin, Morphine, Ritalin, and Adderall) must be physically written prescriptions with no additional refills. There are exceptions such as emergency supplies, but most fraudulent prescriptions are written for larger quantities than the emergency supply law allows.
How do I know if a prescription is fraudulent?  There are warning signs indicating a prescription may not be legitimate. The following are some common ones:
1. Prescription is written/or called in for an unusually high dosage or quantity.

2. Prescription is written in pencil or several different colors of ink.

3. Lack of standard abbreviations (every word written or spoken out completely).

4. Different handwriting styles or perfect handwriting.

5. Altered numbers in quantity and/or dosage.

6. Characteristics indicating a photocopy.

7. Out of state physicians. 
8. Paper is too smooth, no indentations from pen pressing on paper.

9. Part of physician’s signature is cut off. 

10. No perforation or residual glue at the top of paper.

11. Toner dust rubbing off or smudging on the paper.
Patients presenting fraudulent or forged prescriptions do not act like everyday customers. Here are some signs of unusual patient behavior that flags a pharmacist.
1. Requests early refills (some common excuses are vacations, lost medication, dropped in sink.)
2. Patient is willing to pay full cash price instead of using insurance or attempts to work around the days’ supply and quantity limits imposed by most insurance carriers.
3. A number of patients appear simultaneously, or within a short period of time, all bearing similar prescriptions from the same prescriber.
4. Patient is unusually anxious, out of proportion to the situation.
5. Unusually impatient for prescription to be filled and attempts to rush their prescription through ahead of others.
6. Attempts to persuade the pharmacist not to verify prescription with physician.
7. Drops off prescription right before closing and persuades pharmacist to rush it through.
8. Patient arrives within minutes of the prescription being called in by prescriber.
9. Verification callback number is cell phone or number other than physician office.
When a fraudulent prescription is presented to a pharmacist a few things can happen:
1. The patient fools the pharmacist and obtains the medication.
2. The pharmacist refuses to fill the medication.
3. The pharmacist fills the medication but alerts the DEA or local authorities and the patient is arrested as soon as the fraudulent prescription is sold.

I’d like to say I’ve never been fooled or that my patients would never try and falsify a prescription, but unfortunately that’s not true. I’ve seen it and heard it all! In my twelve years as a pharmacist I’ve even had a few people arrested. I hope you have a better understanding of how prescriptions are forged.  Feel free to ask any questions or pick my brain.


Amy Gale is a pharmacist by day, aspiring author by night. She attended Wilkes University where she graduated with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Her dream is to share her novel, Blissful Tragedy, with the world. In addition to writing, she enjoys baking, scary movies, rock concerts, and reading books at the beach with her feet in the sand. She lives in the lush forest of Northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, five cats, and golden retriever puppy. Her journey to publication is just beginning, let’s hope it has a happy ending. You can connect with Amy at her website at