Development of “When Pharmacy Goes to War”: How history can be used to impact student pharmacists’ perspectives about the profession

This semester, we will be profiling several projects from colleagues at the UMN COP, highlighting each for innovation in pharmacy education. Last week, we began the series by introducing an experiential elective for first-year student pharmacists:  The Pharmaceutical Care Experience directed by Anita Sharma, PharmD (HealthEast) and Keri Hager, PharmD (UMN COP-Duluth).

This week profiles an elective for second and third-year student pharmacists called “When Pharmacy Goes to War” taught by Megan Undeberg, PharmD.    

The Innovation

Healthcare providers, such as pharmacists, have a responsibility to their fellow man to safeguard and protect human life. This course reviews the role of pharmacists during some of the most challenging and changing times in history, in which students may apply what they learn to enrich pharmacy practice in the future. Students will learn about pharmacists in the French resistance during World War II (WWII), those involved within the Krakow Jewish ghetto, a pharmacist who joined the SS and was integral to the Selektion process with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, and an American pharmacist who served the needs of the Japanese-Americans interned in the concentration camps here in the United States.

Megan Undeberg

Early idea development for the course came from Dr. Undeberg’s own family tree through the conversations she had with her father growing up, especially after a visit he took to Norway in 1985 while he served as an Army lieutenant colonel and attended the NATO/CIOR Congress. Her paternal grandparents immigrated from Norway in the 1920s and 30s, so the trip gave her father his opportunity to visit the family farm and connect with relatives. It was the stories that Undeberg’s father brought back, particularly those about one cousin, Olav, and his service in the Norwegian Resistance during the Nazi occupation that spurred her curiosity and joy of learning about history, particularly WWII. During her undergrad years, while working on her biology degree, she studied the history of medicine, particularly medicine during the Civil War and WWII eras. The final step that led to the creation of the course was the discovery of a series of letters written to a pharmacist in Denver from some of the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the concentration camps here in the United States. After taking years to track them down and reading them, she knew this type of information and knowledge needed to be shared, especially with the next generation of pharmacists.

When asked what she hopes students will gain or what their biggest takeaway may be from taking this elective she said, “Will this help strengthen the students’ internal ethical barometer? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I do know one thing: each student will walk away having investigated aspects of the role of a pharmacist that we simply do not discuss. I truly hope students walk away from this course impacted, changed, and altered. I want them to question the actions that occurred during those historical days, and their own actions today. Each of us has a responsibility to serve our fellow man, and to not repeat history.”   

Course Implications for Advancing Pharmacy Education and Practice

Dr. Undeberg is attempting to embed activities based on Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning. The hope is that the course will cause students to reflect and potentially change their internal way of thinking, processing, and analyzing. She also hopes this course will help re-energize and re-invigorate the idea of humanities in pharmacy education and advance the practice of the history of pharmacy, not necessarily the traditional “where did drugs come from”, but more in the liberal arts area.

By studying in this area, there are numerous lessons to be learned that can be applied to pharmacy practice. One of the key implications is prompting students to consider: when you are practicing as a pharmacist what will you do to safeguard the vulnerable, the weary, the frightened, the weak, and the poor? During the WWII era, many brave pharmacists took patient care to an entirely different level. The privilege and challenge is figuring out ways to learn from them and honor their choices. “When Pharmacy Goes to War” is meant to show students the impact of history and how it can be applied, with them being the architects, to impact the future of patient care and the profession.