Exploring Human Potential

Retail Pharmacy: The Nucleus of the Pharmaceutical Industry. Part I – The Local Druggist

Posted on | September 5, 2019 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

If you do a word association game today, and throw out the word “sickness”, many will respond with “medicine”. If you query “medicine, “drug store” or “pharmacy” appear. Press further, and CVS and Walgreens make the list. This is not a phenomena of health consumerism which as a movement is scarcely three decades old. No, it has a rich tradition, one that is as old as our nation itself.

Americans have always loved their medicines and sought them out actively to cure whatever ailed them. Their interest ranged all the way from “staying well” to “feeling better.” Productivity in this hard-charging, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” society required activity, and it’s hard to be active when you’re sick.

As a doctor’s family in the 1950’s, we were a medicine family. If you, as a 10 year old, had an upset stomach or diarrhea, you went to our refrigerator, and inside you would reliably find a one quart brown bottle of paregoric cremosuxidine, an opium laced remedy. Take a swig right out of the bottle and you immediately felt better.

The medicine came from Mr. Julius Jones who ran the drug store and soda fountain across the street from our house. When my father received his M.D. in 1942, there were 80,000 pharmacists in the U.S., but only 3000 worked at hospitals. Most were small retail operations built around the practice of compounding medicines. Elixirs, suspensions, ointments, creams, capsules, powders and suppositories  constituted an ever changing product line. By 1942, guidance for the druggist came from one reliable source – United States Pharmacopeia (USP) guide – 11th Edition (1937) or 12th edition (1943). This text not only catalogued approved medicines but also the various formulations or recipes for their execution and delivery from behind the counter. Even at this time however, pharmacy was becoming standardized. Fully 70% of prescriptions could be filled with pre-packaged medications.

Mr. Jones was the product of an accelerated 3-year training program instituted in the build up to World War II. Before that, and ever since 1932, a four year Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy was mandatory. By 1942, there were sixty-eight colleges of pharmacy in the U.S. The training programs focused on the science, techniques and business of medicines. State licenses were not reciprocal across state borders.

My father’s office, on the corner of Columbia Avenue and Abbott Boulevard, two blocks from the Palisades Amusement Park and the Palisade Cliffs, was attached to our house. Mr. Jones’ store was as much a fixture on the “Junction” as was Kate and John’s Delicatessen. The block long collection of some ten or so one-story local businesses had been on the trolley line connecting Hudson County towns like West New York and Jersey City to Fort Lee. The trolley that stopped at this junction no longer ran. But the name “junction” stuck.

In any case, this was the meeting point, where people from Cliffside Park, and Edgewater, and Fort Lee would congregate to see my father when they were ill. No appointments were required. It was a walk-up, and largely a cash business. The poor were seen, relying on my father’s benevolence and good will, which was substantial.

My father likely was able to maintain his good humor in part because of his personal and professional friendship with the druggist, Julius Jones, who was considerably more rigid when it came to payment. In fact, it was Mr. Jones who instructed me one day, on seeing me pick up a penny someone had left on the store floor, to “never throw away a penny. Ten of them will make a dime; and ten of those a dollar. That’s how I got rich – I never threw away a penny.”

In fact, Mr. Jones mainly got rich through associations and relationships with local doctors. And my father, being very active and just across the street, was customer #1. The store’s revenue stream was split between sales from behind the counter, at the counter, and in front of the counter. In front, there were a wide variety of household durable goods. The shelves were meticulously stacked with proprietary medicines, toiletries, hair curlers and pins, makeup, stockings, and of course candy and cigarettes. At the counter was a full-on soda bar (including sundaes in thick ice cream glasses and black and white (chocolate soda and vanilla ice cream) ice cream sodas with 5 green vinyl covered circular twister seats. And behind the counter, off to the side, were large bottles filled with pills and tablets, lotions and potions, and solid granules of varying colors, sizes and textures, and a worn, stone mortar and pestle. Concoctions were mixed to order, following complex prescriptive directions, written in Latin – the preferred language between doctor and druggist, which effectively kept the patient out of the loop.

Growing up in the 1950’s, I was largely unaware that this quaint retail outlet, and thousands of others like it, was in fact the birth place of the pharmaceutical industry. But that was truly the case. In fact, one seminal published paper at the turn of the century was correctly titled, “Retail Pharmacy as the Nucleus of the Pharmaceutical Industry”. That paper recounted that in the 17th century in Europe, primitive medicinal chemists, running stores the size of Mr. Jones’s, were busy in the back room producing a range of products for wholesale distribution close and far away.

Part II: The European Apothecary (next)


2 Responses to “Retail Pharmacy: The Nucleus of the Pharmaceutical Industry. Part I – The Local Druggist”

  1. Lewis Miller
    September 7th, 2019 @ 10:57 am

    Good article, Mike. As a young teen in the early 40s –with a bike — I delivered for a local pharmacy in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where I grew up. Since I just picked up what was to be delivered, I never paid much attention to the :manufacturing” that went non behind the counter, just hoped for tips from from waiting customers.


  2. Mike Magee
    September 7th, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    Great to hear from you, Lew. More on this subject in my new book, “CODE BLUE: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex.” Loved your connection to the Flatbush pharmacy. Many of us had a similar experience. When I spent a bit of time with Bob Dole some years back, he actively reminisced about his boyhood experiences working at the local drug store in Kansas – and how much he had learned and counted on those relationships as he was recovering from his war injuries. Multiple that by thousands and you see better how the drug store “next door” helped shape our America. Best, Mike

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