Pharms in arms: Pharmacy responds to the call to duty

March 19, 2007

Any combat veteran will acknowledge that the two most important members of his squad are the radioman and the field medic, the two prized targets for any enemy sniper. Pharmacists have played an indispensable role in all too many wars and are an important part of the field medical team.

The famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle did a good job of describing the feeling of soldiers receiving care from the military medical team: "These men lived a rough-and-tumble life. They slept on the ground, worked ghastly hours, were sometimes under fire, and handled a flow of wounded that would sicken and dishearten a person less immune to it. Time and again as I lay in my tent, I heard wounded soldiers discussing the wonderful treatment they had at the hands of the medics. They'll get little glory back home when it's over, but they had some recompense right there in the gratitude of the men they treated."

It's generally held that pharmacists and medical personnel are part of the rear echelon and do not experience the danger of combat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pharmacist Robert Knecht of Cincinnati was killed in action on the Anzio beachhead on Feb. 7, 1944. During World War II alone at least 131 pharmacists and pharmacy students died serving our country.

The early days

As of 1932, pharmacy education required a baccalaureate degree. This did not result in a military commission. Despite the proven assessment of pharmacist interventions during WWI and the new education standard set in 1932, the value of pharmacists was not always in accordance with their military rank and pay. The military view of pharmacy service was more aligned with one of operating a business and not necessarily delivering the best system of medical checks and balances as well as collaborative practice.

Military recognition

Medicine had evolved to mandate additional standards of safety and effectiveness. However, it was not until 1943 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Durham-Reynolds bill as Public Law 130, which established the Pharmacy Corps in the Army. The struggle of pharmacy professionalism and Army recognition ended in a positive, united direction.

The struggle started by Atlanta pharmacist George Payne in 1894 (first VP of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy from 1904 to 1905) was finally concluded in 1943 as the U.S. Army recognized pharmacy as a profession. Recognized or not, roughly 14,000 R.Ph.s or pharmacy students served their country during World War II in all positions in all branches. However, only 16% were commissioned in some officer capacity but not necessarily as pharmacy officers.