Women's History Month | Anna Louise James, The First African American Female Pharmacist

WRITTEN BY GRETA JOHNSON AND DR. SWATHI

In honor of Women’s History Month, this is a tribute to the trailblazing women who have come before us, those who have fought for our right to have a voice, get an education, and most importantly, be treated as an equal.

Anna Louise James was born on January 19, 1886, to a former slave who worked in a Virginia plantation and found refuge in Connecticut by escaping via the Underground Railroad. 

As one of the first women of color in the field, her path in science was definitely not easy, was not handed to her, nor was it a path often traveled. She was not only combatting racism in her day, but also sexism. She was born shortly after the 13th amendment was ratified on December 6, 18651, and she lived through the woman’s suffrage movement, as women only gained the right to vote on August 18, 19202

She attended Brooklyn College of Pharmacy for her undergraduate studies as the only female and only person of color, in her graduating class. Amidst the women’s rights protests, she graduated in 1908. She proceeded to attend the University of Connecticut’s School of Pharmacy, graduating with her Doctor of Pharmacy degree, making her the first African American woman in Connecticut to be a licensed pharmacist. 

People constantly attempted to convince her that she was not on the right path, with the one of the most extreme examples being when she was told by the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association that she was not allowed to join due to the fact that she is a woman. But, that did not stop her.

She worked for her brother-in-law, Peter Clark Lane, who was one of two black pharmacists in their town of Saybrook, Connecticut. Once Peter was called to fight in World War I, he left the store, Lane Pharmacy, in the hands of Anna. She became the sole owner of the store, and quickly stole the hearts of the people of Saybrook, a predominantly Caucasian town. The people of Saybrook loved Anna, referring to her as “Miss James”, which in itself is a milestone for black history, as people did not call her by “Aunt Anna”, the offensive phrase reserved for black women at the time. Teddy Levy, in his article, Miss James, First Woman Pharmacist in CT Right in Old Saybrook3, wrote, “For more than 50 years she was the kindly, caring, trustworthy, and universally cherished Miss James. From her pharmacy on Pennywise Lane in Old Saybrook she dispensed prescriptions to cure illness and sooth the hearts and minds of generations of Saybrook residents and visitors. For generations of town’s people she was an employer, a sensible and sensitive confidant and adviser. For more than half a century she was the confidant and conscience of the community.” Her impact on the field of pharmacy lives on to this day, with her undeniable passion for serving the people, being an accessible healthcare provider, and ultimately, breaking barriers that have never been broken before.

Her impact in this world can not be quantified in words — she was a revolutionary pioneer for both women and people of color in science. Despite the response from the male “leaders” of the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association, she continued to fight for herself and what she believed in, and ultimately built a way for others; she was not only a pharmacist, she was a successful business owner, and a successful health care provider who cared for her patients. 

Paving the path for women of color in pharmacy means a lot for young women of color, like us, as because of her and her accomplishments, my skin color nor my gender are used against me. And, while microaggressions still exist in our world day, we must continue to fight to embolden ourselves and our classmates and colleagues to step up for equality in all spheres.

Anna Louise James serves as an inspiration as a woman in the sciences who shattered more than a few glass ceilings. Regardless of her circumstances, she never lost sight of what was important to her: treating patients and being an active member of her community.


Resources:

  1. U.S. Const. amend. XIII.
  2. U.S. Const. amend. XIX.
  3. Levy T. Miss James, First Woman Pharmacist in CT Right in Old Saybrook: Connecticut History: a CTHumanities Project. Connecticut History. Published March 11, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2021.

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This article was written by Dr. Swathi and Elēment Apothēc Scientific Communications Intern, Greta Johnson. She is a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) student at Northeastern University School of Pharmacy at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences in Boston, Massachusetts.

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