The Washington Times-Herald

June 13, 2013

Carl Burris: First pharmacist

Blake Chambers
Washington Times-Herald

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.

With assistance from the GI Bill, Burris spent the next four years in Indianapolis studying to become a pharmacist. During his sophomore year at Butler, he married Eleanor James. While continuing his studies through the end of the 1940s, he worked part time at Kunkel Pharmacy in Indianapolis and after graduation worked a year as a fulltime pharmacist for Kunkel before returning with Eleanor to Washington in 1950.

His former employers and mentors at Williams Drugstore had ample pharmacists in 1950, “so I went up to the old Lindeman Pharmacy and I asked Bob Fox if he needed a pharmacist and he took me on.”

Burris went on to explain that it was actually called “Fox Drugs” after Bob Fox took it over, but it had always been called “Lindeman’s Drugs” when he was in high school. His starting pay at Fox Drugs was $2 an hour.

Burris had been working at Fox Drugs for a little over a year when “one day a couple of board members walked in and said, ‘Mr. Burris, we’re interested in getting a pharmacist for the hospital.’”  Hospital work had interested Carl since his days at Butler so the offer was attractive despite the fact the hospital could not afford to pay him more than the $2 an hour he was already making at Fox.

Olive DeHart was the hospital’s chief administrator at the time and according to Burris “she and the supervisor of nurses had to take care of the drugs in the hospital and that took up most of their time. They needed somebody that was able to do it full time.”

So in November 1951, almost 200 years after Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital hired the first documented hospital pharmacist in America, Burris became the first staff pharmacist at DCH.

He remembers the doctors on staff at the time were for the most part men much like him, returning servicemen, many with strong local ties.

From what he describes as “a little room in the basement,” he dispensed medicines for among others, Dr. Jack McKittrick, Dr. E.B. Smoot, Dr. Bob Rang, Dr. Don Sears, Dr. Horace Norton, Dr. Robert Fraser; Dr. Williams Schafer, Dr. Vance Chattin, Dr. H.B. Lindsay, Dr. H.E. Blazey, Dr. H.R. Schroeder and Dr. Jack Farris.

For many years Burris was, as he describes it, ”the only one.  On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  And I worked four hours Saturday mornings and I always came in on Sunday mornings.” Late in his tenure at DCH, the administration hired an aide to assist him, but if someone needed something in the middle of the night, Burris was still the man they called.

Computers arrived on the scene in the 1980s and he admits, “I was not computer educated.” As the decade progressed, Burris put the administration on notice that they “would have to find a new pharmacist to work the computers.”

After 36 years on the job, Burris retired on March 1, 1987.  Despite some heart problems suffered after he left the hospital, Carl passes his time these days riding his bicycle around Daviess and neighboring counties, and visiting with his six children, 12 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.