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shinbone is connected to the thighbone.35
Dr. Holmes decided Vermont was too small a school, however; so after
one year there he transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann
Arbor, which could boast “one of the West™s leading scientific medical
schools,” Larson wrote, “noted for its emphasis on the controversial art of
dissection.”36 It was also home to the nation™s first college of pharmacy,
opened in 1868 by Dr. Albert Prescott, who had just finished his tour of
duty as a military surgeon in the Civil War. Originally organized under

from humble beginnings 19

the Literary Department, the college of pharmacy grew out of the medical
school and earned both respect and criticism because Dr. Prescott stressed
scientific understanding over the more practical vocational approach of-
fered elsewhere, eschewing the need for an apprenticeship as a prerequi-
site for graduation.37
Michigan™s college of pharmacy would graduate Charles Sr.™s son Chuck
in 1928 and grandson Cork in 1959 and today features a wing donated by
Walgreens. Charles™s great-grandson Kevin, today a vice president for the
company, also graduated from Michigan. The scientific rigor of Michigan™s
college of pharmacy would make its mark on the Walgreens and, through
them, the entire industry in the years to come.
The shadowy nature of nineteenth-century medical education, how-
ever, cannot be ignored”especially as it impacted the field Charles
Walgreen Sr. was poised to enter. On Monday, October 11, 1993, a back-
hoe had just begun excavating the foundation for the University of
Michigan™s new physics building. As it dug near the foundation of the
decades-old West Engineering Building on Michigan™s central campus, an
odor suddenly arose, one so acrid that everyone nearby turned to cover
their noses. Seconds later, the scoop brought up a fragment of a human
What the construction crew had inadvertently discovered was a secret
burial ground for cadavers”cadavers illegally obtained and disposed of”
and with it, a glimpse into the unsophisticated and unregulated early years
of medical education.
Michigan was ahead of most colleges, actually, when it started its own
medical school in 1850. It did so simply by co-opting a three-man instruc-
tional outfit already up and running in town. Michigan was, indeed, noted
for its emphasis on the controversial art of dissection.
One reason it was so controversial was the State of Michigan™s ban on
the two main methods for obtaining cadavers: buying them or stealing
them. Michigan did the only thing it could do to fulfill its annual need for
one hundred dead bodies: It broke the law. The “demonstrator of
anatomy” authorized his agents to pay $30 to $40 per cadaver”enough to

20 america™s corner s tore

cover a third to a half of a medical school student™s expenses. Anyone who
has witnessed contemporary college students hauling bags of sticky, smelly
beer bottles back to the party store on a hot Sunday morning for the 10-
cent bounty each container represents can guess what happened next:
The students got into the business of procuring cadavers, packing them in
barrels labeled “fresh paint” or “pickles,” and disposing of them when they
were finished. This dirty little secret apparently wasn™t much of a secret
at all by the 1870s, when a piece in the yearbook defined “medic” as
someone who “preys on both the quick and the dead,” “never whistles
when ˜going through™ a graveyard at night,” and “is never happier than
when he findeth a fellow-man ˜in a pickle.™”38
In addition to the ethical questions that such practices should have
raised, the medical ones were probably more serious”if less understood. In
the cramped medical building, “patients and cadavers . . . co-mingled in
the disease-ridden atmosphere,” the Ann Arbor Observer reported. “The
same lecture room and table used for dissections during the week were used
for clinical demonstrations of living patients on Saturday mornings.”39
The university would not open its new (and newly legalized)
Anatomical Laboratory until 1887”three years after Holmes graduated.
Given his future deviance, it™s not hard to imagine him playing an active
role in the bustling cadaver trade during his time at Michigan.
Holmes enrolled at Michigan™s school of medicine on September 21,
1882, and impressed his professors as “a scamp”; but he graduated on time,
just 21 months after he enrolled, as a Doctor of Medicine. In June 1884, he
set out to find some favorable location in which to launch a practice, but
he found it harder than expected.
With apparently little or no reservations, Dr. Holmes decided to leave
the practice of medicine for pharmacology. What would seem a very
strange move today made a lot more sense a century ago. Medicine, at best,
was an unstructured, undisciplined field, which relied more on aggressive
(and often disastrous) guesswork than on science.
Many doctors killed as many patients as they cured. In his history of the

from humble beginnings 21

Coca-Cola company, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, Mark Pendergrast
describes the state of the profession during the Gilded Age, when Coca-
Cola™s creator, Dr. John Pemberton, was practicing pharmacy in Atlanta.
“Cheap nostrums sometimes provided a safer alternative. Furthermore,
there were few doctors in rural areas, forcing the country folk to use patent
medicine . . . which were often taken to relieve the symptoms of overeat-
ing and poor diet, which went hand-in-hand in that period.”40
And although pharmacology certainly attracted more than its share of
charlatans a century ago”including Dr. Holmes”pharmacists more fre-
quently offered the kind of practical, proven advice that doctors could not.
For starters, the practice of pharmacy had been around much longer than
the practice of medicine, insofar as the world™s first “doctors” were really
herbologists and chemists, not surgeons. Pharmacy was more structured
and regulated, and there were many more pharmacists than doctors.
After Dr. Holmes bounced around pharmacies in Minneapolis and up-
state New York, he settled in Chicago, a town that already had 1,500 phar-
macies licensed under the state™s new licensing system. Pharmacies seemed
to pop up on each street corner the way gourmet coffee shops do today.
Reading the various histories of Chicago of the era, it™s tempting to con-
clude that everyone and his cousin were in the pharmacy field, including
Daniel Burnham™s father, who ran a successful wholesale drug business,
and at one point Burnham himself, who started out his professional life
not as a promising architect but as a failed druggist.
By the late 1880s, Dr. Holmes was running one of those 1,500 Chicago
pharmacies. In fact, it was the visibility and the aura of professional respect
that his new pharmacy lent him that allowed Dr. Holmes to lure attractive
young women to enter his store, conveniently located a few blocks from
the Exposition on Chicago™s South Side, as both customers and clerks. To
raise extra money, Dr. Holmes also started a mail-order medicine company.
“In a parody of Aaron Montgomery Ward™s fast-growing empire in central
Chicago,” Larson wrote, “Holmes had begun selling sham drugs that he
guaranteed would cure alcoholism and baldness,” the latest crazes.41

22 america™s corner s tore

Like Holmes, Walgreen was also lured to the City of Big Shoulders
during the Columbian Exposition and to the field of pharmacy. His approach
to the profession would be as noble as his competitors™ was shameless.

walgreen does chicago

If Holmes represented the darkest possible sides of pharmacology”from
his spurious salesmanship, to his exploitation of the intimacy his position
offered, to the ultimate betrayal of a professional™s trust”Walgreen repre-
sented all that people admired about pharmacists: He was a knowledge-
able, empathetic, and, most important, honest professional. But it must be
said that, like Holmes (and many other young pharmacists, undoubtedly),
Walgreen initially showed little passion for hard work, for following orders,
or even for pharmacology itself, for that matter.
On that cold Saturday morning in the winter of 1893, when Walgreen
took a small bag and the $20 his sister gave him and hopped on the train
headed from Dixon to Chicago, he studied the Tribune classified section en
route. By the time he got off the train, he already had a job opening tar-
geted, just a few blocks from the station. He walked into Samuel
Rosenfeld™s drugstore at Quincy and Wells, not far from a block-long
Marshall Field™s store, and walked out with a clerking job that paid a
healthy $5 a week.
Walgreen decided to celebrate his sudden success by spending the
weekend shooting pool with some old buddies from Dixon who had
moved to town, burning through the remainder of his $20. And that
was the problem. When he walked through the door of the drugstore
that Monday morning for his first day of work, he had to ask his new em-
ployer for an advance just to eat that night and get a room at a transient
hotel nearby.
“The experience must have made an impression on him,” Myrtle
wrote, “because after I knew him he certainly kept his books balanced;
and I never remember a single time that he took on anything, either in

from humble beginnings 23

the line of business or pleasure, that he didn™t know ahead of time he
could pay for.”42
But Walgreen™s sense of responsibility wouldn™t emerge for a few years.
Like most of Walgreen™s jobs, that one didn™t last long. Despite economic
tremors like The Panic of 1893”which forced 192 railroads to fail, in-
cluding such legendary lines as the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific,
and the Santa Fe”Walgreen never seemed to have any trouble finding a
new job in the drugstore business whenever he needed one. With 1,500
drugstores in town, it seems they needed him more than he needed them.
None of Walgreen™s stints lasted more than a couple years, and most
much less, including tours of duty in a handful of stores on Chicago™s
North Side. One shop owner there, Max Grieben, liked Walgreen™s Aryan
looks “and soft-spoken manner but told him he would have to learn
German,” which he did.43
But after leaving yet another job, Walgreen realized he was squandering
his future in piecemeal fashion, with no focus or ambition to direct his
search. Sensing that he needed to do something dramatic to wake himself
up, he looked over the Chicago River one night, pulled out the remaining
pennies in his pocket, and threw them into the water to force him to
“cease his dawdling,” as Myrtle recalled him telling her.44
Walgreen struck out this time for the South Side, which seemed to suit
him better. Since the neighborhoods there were still booming with post-
Exposition transplants, “he felt the South Side held the greatest possibili-
ties for the future,” Myrtle wrote. “He kept looking for a drugstore where
he would feel as if he belonged.”45
When charting Walgreen™s peripatetic journey through Chicago™s drug-
stores, you get the impression that the young man stuck with pharmacy
not because he had a great passion for it but because it was convenient. It
was simple work for him and an easy field in which to find a new job when-
ever he got the itch. In hindsight, however, Walgreen™s “drifting” served
him very well. Instead of glomming on to one mentor in one store in one
neighborhood for his entire apprenticeship, Walgreen™s clerking career ex-
posed him to many methods of running a drugstore, not to mention the

24 america™s corner s tore

myriad neighborhoods into which he would soon be expanding after he
started his own chain. When the time came for him to run his own empire,
the lessons learned in these early years would give him a great advantage
over his competition.
In 1896, Walgreen eventually settled at William G. Valentine™s drug-
store on Cottage Grove Avenue and 39th Street. The site was ideally lo-
cated on the first floor of the Thacker Building, one of hundreds of city
structures finished right before the fair, with cable cars stopping on both
streets of the intersection. Thanks to his years as a drugstore journeyman,
Walgreen™s knowledge and skills had improved, earning him a decent $35
a month. Valentine, however, was in the habit of criticizing him for the
smallest infractions, which didn™t sit well with the young man who was
now putting in almost 80 hours a week and living with two roommates
over the store in a bedbug-infested apartment. (It™s a testament to living
conditions in nineteenth-century Chicago that a four-year-old building
could already be infested with bed bugs.) He™d had enough.
While trying to decide just what to do”and having grown weary of
bouncing from job to job”Walgreen liked to take his mind off his prob-
lems by going to the ballpark and the racetrack with his roommates. One
afternoon at the horses, he hauled in some $70, twice his monthly salary,
and was so giddy he played hooky the next day by telling Mr. Valentine he
had a “pressing appointment.” He then returned to the track and pro-
ceeded to lose all his winnings from the previous day, and then some. A
few more trips like that cured Walgreen of betting what he couldn™t afford
to lose; but for a man with such conservative instincts, his gambler™s nerves
would prove a great asset when he started his own business.
Seeing no way out of his predicament, Walgreen concluded he had lit-
tle choice but to quit, yet again. But before he walked out the door once
more, a bit of long-dormant pride kicked in, and he decided to reform. Not
for its own virtue, mind you. He wanted to become a model employee just
long enough to make Valentine regret his leaving.
Walgreen™s plan worked”maybe too well. Valentine was so impressed
by the suddenly invigorated Walgreen™s efforts that he bumped his

from humble beginnings 25

monthly salary from $35 to $45, and then again a little while later to
$55”pretty good money for a drugstore clerk.
Valentine also began mentoring the young man in earnest, urging him
to study the pharmacology bibles”the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the National
Formulary, and Remington™s. Walgreen probably surprised both Valentine
and himself by taking the bait, poring over those dense tomes well enough
to pass the Illinois State Board of Pharmacy examination in 1897 and be-
come a registered pharmacist. This meant that for the first time in his life,
Walgreen was free to own and operate his own store, if he ever had the
urge and the opportunity.

to live and almost die in cuba

Whatever aspirations Walgreen might have harbored at the time were in-


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