Step into history: WSU pharmacy’s first female faculty member

From The Pharmaceutical Echo, published by the Student Branch of the APhA 1934-25 – Dedicated to Miss Belle Wenz, “A sincere and true friend, on who understands student’s problems, and to whom they can go for the best of advice and guidance at any time.”

When Belle Wenz first stepped onto the State College of Washington (WSC) campus in the fall of 1918—renamed Washington State University in 1959–the world was in the midst of a global pandemic and World War I was just coming to a close. When she received her graduate of pharmacy (PhG) degree in 1920, women had just won the right to vote, and prohibition was in full swing in the United States. She went on to receive pharmaceutical chemist (PhC) and bachelor of science in pharmacy degrees in 1922, earning a four-year degree in a time when a two-year degree was the norm. It was a time of change and upheaval worldwide, and a time when female faculty members in the sciences were far from common.

Born in Rathdrum, Idaho in 1902, Belle Wenz was the daughter of Doctor Frank Wenz and Sarah Wenz. Her father was a pioneer physician who ran a medical practice and a drug store where he first introduced Belle to pharmacy and medicine—passions which she would carry with her through her time at WSC and beyond.

Due to rising enrollment in the pharmacy program at WSC in the early 1900s, additional faculty was needed and in 1921 the department signed on then-student, Belle Wenz as an assistant in pharmacy with full direction of some classes. Following her graduation in 1922, she was appointed a regular full-time instructorship. She was the first female faculty member to join the then School of Pharmacy, and second faculty member outside of the head of the department.

Pharmacy faculty photo in the 1926 Chinook, the Washington State College yearbook.

Ten years later (1932), she also became the first woman, and second student ever, to receive a master of science in pharmacy degree from WSC. Her master’s thesis was, “A study of cosmetic formulae,” and Wenz would go on to teach a course in cosmetics as part of the pharmacy curriculum. WSC was the second school in the United States to offer such a course. Wenz was instrumental in creating not only the course content but had some equipment designed for the course and manufactured according to her specifications.

Around the same time, Wenz was promoted to the rank of assistant professor, with regents minutes from the time stating, “Miss Wenz is a young woman of superior ability who has become one of our most effective teachers. Furthermore, she has shown a fine cooperative spirit and has been generous in the time she has given to many college activities.”

As an undergraduate, she served as president WSC pharmacy fraternity for women, Phi Nu Phi and served as the first president of the Lambda Kappa Sigma (LKS) chapter at WSC (the Mu chapter) when Phi Nu Phi became affiliated with the national sorority for pharmacy women. As a faculty member, Wenz served as an advisor to the Mu chapter of LKS and beginning in 1926 served on the Grand Council of the national organization for a total of 26 years, including two terms as grand president (1928-1932). To promote scholastic achievement, the Mu chapter also awarded an annual prize to the junior with the highest average—in 1956 it became known as the Belle Dirstine award (Wenz’s name following her marriage in 1937).

1923 Chinook – Wenz in Crimson W sweater received for outstanding performance in women’s athletics. She played hockey and baseball.

As both a student and faculty member Wenz was also a part of various other roles in Pullman and national organizations dedicated to pharmacy, women, and academic excellence. In 1935 she was even appointed to the committee of the National Association Colleges of Pharmacy covering curriculum and teaching methods. Wenz served as a national correspondent for several national trade journals in the field of pharmacy. She was licensed as a pharmacist in Washington and Idaho and owned a drug store in Rathdrum, Idaho where she ran daily operations during summer vacations.

Wenz left her position at WSC in 1937 when she married P.H. Dirstine, dean of the School of Pharmacy (1917-1952). At that time a nepotism rule was strictly enforced. After leaving the college, she stayed an active part of student’s lives, continuing her role as the advisor for the WSC chapter of Lamda Kappa Sigma for years to follow. Class of 1941 graduate, Kathryn Hammarstedt (nee Church) remembered to the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences monthly meetings with the wife of the dean, Belle (Wenz) Dirstine, saying, “She encouraged us that if we were to be pharmacists, we were going to be leaders in many ways in small towns or large cities, and we were going to be relied on in many ways.”

Wenz stayed in touch with Lamda Kappa Sigma members at WSC even years later when living in Spokane after her husband passed in 1955. Throughout her life and after her retirement Belle (Wenz) Dirstine traveled extensively around the world until her passing in September 1982.


Thank you to the Washington State University Libraries for their management of the Digital Collections which made the writing of this story possible.