When Pharmacy Goes to War

How history can be used to impact student pharmacists’ perspectives about the profession

The new elective course, When History Goes to War, reviews the role of pharmacists during some of the most challenging and changing times in history, in which students may apply what they learn to enrich pharmacy practice in the future.

In the course, students learn about pharmacists in the French resistance during World War II, those involved within the Krakow Jewish ghetto, a pharmacist who joined the SS and was integral to the Selektion process with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, and an American pharmacist who served the needs of the Japanese‐Americans interned in the concentration camps here in the United States.

undebergCourse director Megan Undeberg said early idea development for the course came from her own family tree and through conversations she had with her father growing up, especially after a visit he took to Norway in 1985 while he served as an Army lieutenant colonel and attended the NATO/CIOR Congress.

“My paternal grandparents immigrated from Norway in the 1920s and 30s, so the trip gave my father the opportunity to visit the family farm and connect with relatives,” she said.

It was the stories that Undeberg’s father brought back, particularly those about one cousin, Olav, and his service in the Norwegian Resistance during the Nazi occupation, that spurred her curiosity and joy of learning about history, particularly WWII.

During the WWII era, many brave pharmacists took patient care to an entirely different level. The privilege and challenge is figuring out ways to learn from them and honor their choices.

While working on her undergraduate biology degree, Undeberg studied the history of medicine, particularly medicine during the Civil War and WWII eras.

The final step that led to the creation of the course was the discovery of a series of letters written to a pharmacist in Denver from some of the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the concentration camps in the United States. After taking years to track them down and reading them, she knew this type of information and knowledge needed to be shared, especially with the next generation of pharmacists.

“By studying in this area, there are numerous lessons to be learned that can be applied to pharmacy practice,” said Undeberg. “One of the key implications is prompting students to consider: when you are practicing as a pharmacist what will you do to safeguard the vulnerable, the weary, the frightened, the weak, and the poor? During the WWII era, many brave pharmacists took patient care to an entirely different level. The privilege and challenge is figuring out ways to learn from them and honor their choices. When Pharmacy Goes to War is meant to show students the impact of history and how it can be applied, with them being the architects, to impact the future of patient care and the profession.”

Third year student Sarah Patton chose the elective because of her interest in history.patton

“Even though pharmacists have been around for hundreds of years, I had never really heard about the history of pharmacy,” said Patton. “It’s important to appreciate how far medicine has come in the last few decades. Throughout the course, I had to keep reminding myself that most of the events we discussed only occurred about 70 years ago. Learning about the history of your profession gives you an appreciation of where it can go in the future.”

Patton said one of the takeaways of the course was the importance of not repeating mistakes.

“Even though we may never face the decision of helping at a Jewish concentration camp, in our careers we may face other ethical decisions,” said Patton. “It can be easy to judge individuals from 70-plus years ago, but it’s a different story when you are the one being forced to make those difficult decisions. The Pharmacy Goes to War course reinforced the importance of knowing my values and sticking to them when it counts.”

Course Director Undeberg hopes students leave the course having investigated aspects of the role of a pharmacist that are not regularly discussed.

“I truly hope students walk away from this course impacted, changed and altered,” said Undeberg. “I want them to question the actions that occurred during those historical days, and their own actions today. Each of us has a responsibility to serve our fellow man, and to not repeat history.”

(Adapted from a blog post written by Bob Bechtol for the college’s Wulling Center for Innovation & Scholarship in Pharmacy Education. Learn more about the scholarship of teaching and learning at https://wcispe.wordpress.com)