150 years of American Pharmacy: 1918 influenza 'puts pharmacists to the test'

November 5, 2007

Pharmacists worked tirelessly to help patients during the influenza pandemic that killed more than 600,000 Americans in 1918.

Editor's note: Throughout 2007, this column appears in each issue as part of our sesquicentennial celebration, and tied with the column is a contest. Monthly questions based on this column will be posted on the Drug Topics anniversary microsite. Contestants are eligible to win a Visa gift card of $250. For details about the contest, go to http://www.drugtopics.com/.

Quickly, however, the scope and impact of the disease would be unmistakable. Before the year was out, an estimated 20% of the world's population-including 28% of Americans-had contracted the disease, and between 20 million and 100 million people had died worldwide. According to a report in Drug Topics, the disease killed an estimated 360,000 Americans and produced more than $100 million in life insurance claims.

As quickly as it arrived, the disease was gone. Numerous pharmacists described to Druggists' Circular the measures they took during the pandemic as well as the impact it had on their business. Magnesium citrate, salicylate, quinine, and phenacetin were in high demand, and camphor prices rose as the "public appears to have gained the notion that even the odor of camphor would keep influenza germs off." Other parts of the pharmacy like the soda fountain or cosmetic counter "were practically ignored in order to put every competent man at work compounding prescriptions. We worked as long as we could stay on our feet," pharmacists told the magazine.

Pharmacists were up to the task, at least in the view of Druggists' Circular. "In one respect, at least, the ill wind of the late epidemic of Spanish influenza blew some good to pharmacy," the magazine opined. "It served to establish in the estimation of the public the practice of pharmacy as a profession. That pharmacists saved lives, many lives, is indisputable and that they conducted themselves with conspicuous and self-sacrificing devotion to duty and to humanity is equally conclusive."

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