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June 13, 2013

Carl Burris: First pharmacist

WASHINGTON — Two hundred and sixty years ago, a Philadelphia hospital became the first American hospital to hire a salaried apothecary - what we now commonly call a pharmacist. The year was 1752 and the job description read: “to prepare and compound the medicines and administer them agreeable to the prescriptions of the physicians and surgeons.”

The hiring was unusual, perhaps even ahead of its time as most hospitals in colonial America relied on physicians to dispense their own medicines, a tendency that persisted well into 20th Century. By the year 1960, it was estimated that only half of America’s hospitals employed a staff pharmacist.

Bucking that trend in 1951 however, then Daviess County Hospital hired local boy Carl Burris whose prescriptions must have been “agreeable” to a good many surgeons and physicians because he remained on the job for the next 36 years.

One of 11 children of Nora and Eugene Burris, Carl was born in Washington on March 1, 1925. After finishing grade school at Southside, he worked as a “soda jerk” at Williams Drugstore while in high school. He also served in the cadet corps and after graduating from WHS in 1943, Burris, like most young men his age at the time, joined the service.

“I graduated high school one week then left town the next,” he recalled.

Trained as a “turret mechanic,” Burris served in the Air Force during World War II, part of a ground crew on the island of Saipan where he serviced and loaded B-29 bombers. Burris remained in the Air Force after the war ended and has fond memories of loading food and clothing into B-29s that would then fly to mainland Japan and drop the supplies by parachute into POW camps where American servicemen were still being held.

His hitch in the military ended in 1946 and he returned to Washington. In those days he recalls, Williams Drugstore, “was the place to go. I walked in and Joe Williams saw me and welcomed me home and said, ‘Do you want a job?’” Burris said yes and was working as a soda jerk once again when he was approached sometime later by Joe Williams’ brother John who told Carl he should consider going to pharmacy school. Burris looked in to it, weighed his options, decided it was a good idea and eventually, at John Williams’ urging, selected Butler over Purdue.

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