Magazine article Drug Topics

African-American R.Ph.S Making Their Mark

Magazine article Drug Topics

African-American R.Ph.S Making Their Mark

Article excerpt

African-American pharmacists have taken their place in all aspects of pharmacy, overcoming barriers both blatant and subtle. They work in community pharmacies; they are college deans and professors; they are independent consultants and hospital pharmacy directors; and they work for pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy associations. In honor of National Pharmacy Week, Drug Topics has singled out a trio of African-American pharmacists as a hats off to the accomplishments and contributions of the many who are making a difference for their people and their profession.


Ramona McCarthy is a self-described fighter who has battled during most of her 41 years in pharmacy. As the newly installed president of the National Pharmaceutical Association, she's now facing the challenge of revitalizing the organization representing African-American pharmacists.

Founded 45 years ago, the National Pharmaceutical Association has "fallen on tough times," said McCarthy, who is a chemist with the Food & Drug Administration division of bioequivalency in the office of generic drugs. Her presidential agenda includes "an infusion of new blood" to rebuild the older membership, which tends to decrease as members retire or die. Her first-year goal is 500 new members.

"There are 6,000 black registered pharmacists in America," said McCarthy, whose family has produced 16 pharmacists over four generations. "We ought to have at least 3,000 of them as members."

The association is on the move--literally and figuratively. McCarthy and the group's new executive v.p., Terri White-Moore, are scouting out a permanent home in Washington, D.C. A blue ribbon committee has been created to guide long-term strategic planning. Also, alliances are being formed with other professional minority health-care organizations to address mutual concerns.

"We see health care delivered least where it's needed most--in the predominantly minority inner city," said McCarthy. "There is no one to be an advocate for them. We have to push and push hard with other minority health-care delivery groups to give them a voice."

Having a voice has always been part of McCarthy's philosophy. When she moved from her native Ohio to Maryland with her husband in the early '50s, there were no African-American pharmacists licensed in the state. Even with a master's degree in chemistry, she couldn't get a job. No one hired blacks.

She hooked up with the Urban League to test the hiring policy of the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore. She got the job, but as a GS-3 technician, far below her qualifications. When a co-worker told her she should be a GS-9 chemist, she said she "stormed into the personnel office and threatened to sue." There was a big stink, including the media, and they promoted her on the spot to an entry level GS-5 chemist, still four ranks below where she should have been.

"That was my introduction to government service," said McCarthy. "So I just stayed on, because I couldn't find a job as a pharmacist. It's been the best thing that ever happened to me. I usually find that out of every adversity some good comes. That's my philosophy, but at that time I was just mad as hell."

McCarthy then took on the Maryland pharmacy board, applying for license reciprocity with Ohio. She was turned down and told to take the board exam. So she threatened to call her lawyer, back in the days before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The pharmacy board allowed her to take an oral examination. She got her license. "Everywhere I looked, it was just terrible times, but I was cantankerous enough to go on the warpath. It's been much the same ever since." African-Americans have come a long way since McCarthy first encountered such open prejudice, but there are miles to go. She believes that black youth still face barriers, primarily economic ones, that "racism is alive and well America" and that the "good old boy network" is still operative. If women employees are stymied by the glass ceiling in term of promotion, she feels "the glass ceiling is twice as thick for minorities."

McCarthy feels so strongly about the need to give back that she has pledged $10,000 to each of the four predominantly black colleges of pharmacy. And she added her alma mater, Ohio State, to her gift list after the administration demonstrated a real interest in improving its efforts for minority students.

"It's a matter of bringing awareness to a level where needs can be addressed," she said. "Unless you yell and scream, you don't get what's rightfully yours. I feel strongly that you have to be assertive, then you sit down and have a quiet dialogue to get something accomplished. I know there are problems. There will always be problems. The question is, 'What can we do about it?'"

For more information about McCarthy's group, write to the National Pharmaceutical Association, 12510 White Dr., Silver Spring, Md. 20904.


As the son of a prosperous pharmacist-drugstore owner, Waldo Tyler grew up in middle-class comfort in Columbus, Ohio. It wasn't until he was in pharmacy school in the early '60s that racism became more than an abstraction. A job recruiter told him bluntly that the only place a black R.Ph. could work was in a hospital. "That was a defining moment for me," he said. "It brought racism home."

The encounter with the recruiter raised Tyler's consciousness and his hackles. In addition to working in his father's pharmacy when he graduated from Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, he became a social activist in his hometown. He organized a boycott against banks that turned down mortgages for African-Americans, pushed get-out-the-vote drives, and made school desegregation his cause. His commitment would eventually propel him out of pharmacy into full-time social activism for five years. "My avocation became my vocation," he said.

Now, at age 57, Tyler is a pharmacy manager in a Rite Aid drugstore in Glenville, deep in Cleveland's ghetto, having sold the Columbus pharmacy he owned for 10 years. His primary focus is on his new marriage and taking in a foster child, but the flame of social responsibility still burns brightly. He fights against high infant mortality, lead poisoning, and the asthma, diabetes, and hypertension that also dwell in the ghetto.

As the winner of Rite Aid's first community service award, Tyler is an advocate of distributive patient education. He counsels, gives out materials, looks up phone numbers, contacts physicians to write Rxs for infant vitamins for mothers on public assistance. He keeps a yardstick in the pharmacy to measure kids to be sure they're growing right. He sponsors screenings and brown bag programs. He patronizes neighborhood merchants to boost the economy and make a statement. He's a "barrier" to the drug dealers and a helping hand to drug abusers. And he's a role model for children and adults.

"I'm a two-pronged role model," Tyler said. "I am the health-care professional who takes care of people's lives. I am also an African-American man. It's a great responsibility and challenge."


When Nigel Gragg was a pharmacist in a Peoples Drug Store, he fielded lots of questions from patients anxious but ignorant about HIV and AIDS. Those inquiries were the germ of an idea that has grown into a foundation to put R.Phs. in the middle of the fight to educate Americans about the virus.

"If it was happening in my pharmacy, it could happen all over the country," said Gragg. "It seemed to me we could educate pharmacists to educate the public. We could maximize the potential of the infrastructure of pharmacy practice to focus on a single problem. We could reach from rural areas to the inner city, giving people access to critical information about prevention and treatment."

Gragg quit his job in 1988 and started building the nonprofit Foundation of Pharmacists and Corporate America for AIDS Education in Washington, D.C. Today, his brainchild is conducting a demonstration project in Alabama to test the concept of a pharmacy-based AIDS education and prevention program. When it's completed, he plans to take the program nationwide in community pharmacies.

Gragg modestly credits others with the foundation's success, but it's no mean feat to forge an alliance among such diverse groups as the U.S. Public Health Service, pharmacy colleges, state and national pharmacy associations, independent and chain pharmacies, the pharmaceutical industry, and members of Congress.

"This is the first time I'm aware of that the U.S. Public Health Service has committed resources to investigating a specific role for pharmacy in public health," he said. "The collaboration is outstanding, but it's not hard to sell pharmacy. Pharmacists are already capable individuals in others' minds."

An "Army brat" born in Germany and reared in Italy, Gragg graduated from Florida A&M University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. After college, he worked for a while in sales with Eli Lilly, then he joined his brother in a small business to promote agricultural trade in Nigeria. When that didn't work out, he went into community pharmacy.

Gragg is high on pharmacy as a career choice for minority students. It offers "tremendous opportunities," including employment flexibility, solid professional standing, and excellent earning potential. But like McCarthy and Tyler, he believes more must be done to attract minorities to the field and to help them stay in school.

"You can't totally escape the racial issue, which is a reflection on how society has dealt with it," said Gragg, "but my experience has been very positive. The black pharmacists I talk to seem to relate similar positive experiences. My experience with the foundation has been everybody helping--and being an African-American is not an issue. That speaks to the positive attitude of much of pharmacy."

For more information, write to the Foundation of Pharmacists and Corporate America for AIDS Education, 700 13th St., NW, Suite 950, Washington, D.C. 20005; or phone (202) 434-4515.

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