HealthChats recap: Pharmacy Goes to War


What secrets might be held in an ordinary basket containing a ration of bread, canned goods, a roll of paper towels, and a letter? During the most recent HealthChats, Pharmacy Goes to War, Pharmacotherapy Associate Professor Megan Undeberg used these everyday items to take viewers on a tour of pharmacy through World War II, hiding names of pharmacists in the same ways Resistance members hid messages decades before.

Written on a scrap of paper deep within a loaf of bread was Marinette, the code name of Anne-Marie Jeanne Lafaye Menut. Using her position as a pharmacist, Marinette acted as a go between for Resistance messages to get members much-needed medical supplies before eventually moving into the woods to help run their field hospital. But when the Resistance tried to move the hospital to a more secure location, Marinette was captured by Nazi soldiers and eventually died at their hands.

Marinette was the first of many pharmacists covered during Undeberg’s presentation. Pin pricks across a roll of paper towels held Morse code for the names Jean-Francois Salomon and Paul Antoine Joanny, pharmacy school friends who authored articles for the Resistance throughout the war. The back side of a postage stamp held the name Laure Gatet, a French pharmacist and biochemist who carried messages between France and neighboring counties until her capture. In the seam at the bottom of a bag of grain was the name Bochove, a Dutch husband-and-wife pharmacy team who hid 37 people from German soldiers over the course of the war.

Under the label of a can, was the name Paula Schultz. Schultz worked at a pharmacy in Furstenburg, one of the closest towns to the Ravensbruck camp where women faced heavy labor and experimentation. When Schultz took Nazi purchases from the pharmacy to the camp, she would also smuggle supplies to prisoners with medical backgrounds. Surprisingly, the two most popular items were hair dye and stimulants. Though these items might not seem like obvious lifesavers, they were in high demand because a prisoner’s value was dependent on their use to the war machine, appearing old or weak could be a death sentence.

Undeberg explained that between stress, lack of nutrition and other factors, “Even if [the prisoners] were in their 20s, even if they were in their late teens, it was not uncommon for them to go entirely white.”

Leaving her basket behind, Undeberg moved away from the Resistance and into the ghettos of Krakow, Poland.

When Krakow was walled-off, Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s family pharmacy was left inside the ghetto. Rather than relocating, Pankiewicz stayed and continued to serve ghetto residents—even smuggling some out through sewers connected to his pharmacy or sedating babies and sending them outside the ghetto walls in baskets with groceries or food goods on top—right up until the final liquidation of the ghetto when most surviving residents were sent to Auschwitz.

Undeberg said Pankiewicz later explained that, “He always felt it was number one his duty to serve any population… They were his people to take care of. It didn’t matter which side of the wall they lived on.”

Moving across the Pacific Ocean, Undeberg refocused on the war in the United States. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the U.S. declared war on the Axis powers. On February 19, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which forced the relocation of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to camps in the interior of the country with only those possessions they could carry in two suitcases.

They were registered and vaccinated before their forced relocation away from the West Coast, but the close quarters and harsh desert climates made the camps a breeding ground for disease. With delays in receipt of government supplies (sometimes 1-2 years), medical professionals held in the camps quickly became determined to find other ways to help.

The solution: pharmacists working with drug distributors outside of the camps.

In a box found at the Japanese American National Museum in California, Undeberg came across letters between seven pharmacists and the Los Angeles drug distributor John Bonomi detailing conditions at the camps. They eventually developed partnerships to get medical professionals held in the camps desperately needed supplies.

It was a similar story originating out of Denver, Colorado which drove Undeberg to pursue the topic in the first place. When the building that used to be the TK Pharmacy was renovated, construction site workers discovered hidden letters in the walls. The letters revealed that pharmacist Yutaka “Tak” Terasaki received requests from internees in camps across the country, often sending the product back within two days of receipt.

Even after six years of research, Undeberg still discovers new pharmacists every time she investigates the subject, “This is such a gigantic story that’s been lost to time and it’s incredible what’s still to be uncovered. It’s really such a joy to give voices to these people who just were living their everyday lives.”