Pharmacists of a certain age will remember when pharmaceutical companies promoted their products with a vast array of pens, key chains, ashtrays, and a myriad of other kinds of trinkets. Those days ended in 2009 when the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) released its Code on Interactions with Health Care Professionals, which essentially banned the practice. But for AIHP member Allen F. Almquist, a retired Army colonel and pharmacist, the ending of those promotions spawned an avocation devoted to collecting and preserving such once ubiquitous pharmacy memorabilia.
Since starting his collection some 45 years ago, Col. Almquist has collected literally thousands of items. After even a quick survey of the collection, it is hard to imagine that anyone has a more extensive collection of drug promotions.
Col. Almquist recently took his passion for these collectibles to a new level by authoring and self-publishing a book that details the history of drug company promotions and highlights the most notable “giveaways” these campaigns featured. The book, titled The Very Best in Drug Company Promotions . . . and then some (Morris Publishing, 2023), is an extraordinary reference on a largely overlooked chapter in the history of pharmacy. With 500 pages, 20 chapters, and over 1400 color photos of items in Col. Almquist’s collection, the book provides collectors, historians, and pharmacists with a comprehensive description of the best drug promotions, enlivened with entertaining and often humorous anecdotes.
Describing himself as “merely a passionate collector of pharmaceutical memorabilia,” Col. Almquist undertook his book project about three years ago, with the intention of just documenting the items in his collection. But, the project grew larger as he realized the importance of describing individual items in the context of the drug promotional campaigns for which they were created.
Col. Almquist found himself “amazed” at the “genius and creativity” these campaigns often exhibited. Indeed, the book is filled with examples of the imaginative marketing used by drugmakers to keep their products fresh in the minds of pharmacists and physicians. For example, the manufacturer of V-Cillin (phenoxymethyl penicillin) provided doctors’ offices with tongue depressors – each individually wrapped with wax paper labeled “V-Cillin” – to remind physicians when diagnosing strep throat that V-Cillin was the drug of choice. Similarly, the manufacturer of Premarin (then often prescribed for osteoporosis and hot flashes) provided physicians and pharmacists with letter openers with a lucite handle embedded with colored tablets depicting the five strengths of Premarin.
The book also contains examples of some rather interesting promotions – such as when Pfizer, the manufacturer of Glucotrol, a drug marketed to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes mellitus, promoted the drug with a café-style sugar dispenser bearing the product’s name. Others were amusing – such as when the maker of Fleet enemas promoted their products with “EneMan,” an 8-inch plush “beanie” doll in the shape of, you guessed it, a Fleet enema.
There seemed to be no limits in the range of items distributed, from exquisite apothecary jars and a Boatswain’s Call, from bronze medallions and art sculptures to dinner ware and show globes, and even giftware and prescription-ware for pharmacists. The book covers them all.
Readers of the book will find descriptions and photos of hundreds of extraordinary items, all designed to call attention to the thousands of drugs and medicines competing for attention of pharmacists and physicians, as well as patients. One cannot peruse the book without concluding that the pharmaceutical industry was right to end drug promotions of this kind. At the same time, those of us interested in the preserving the history of pharmacy can appreciate and value Col. Almquist’s effort to collect this now disappearing memorabilia and to document its use in a comprehensive – and thoroughly entertaining – book.
Col. Almquist credits another AIHP member – Mickey C. Smith, PhD, RPh – with providing the support and encouragement he needed to complete the book. Professor Smith, a leading scholar on the history of pharmaceutical marketing, was the F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Pharmacy Administration at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy at the time of his death in 2022 (a few months before the book’s publication).
Col. Almquist spent most of his professional life as a pharmacist in the U.S. Army. He retired in 2002 as a Colonel after 28 years on active duty. (He was responsible for Schering’s Coricidin commemorative mortar and pestle honoring pharmacists in the military.) He continued his work as a pharmacist in research, retail, and hospital settings until 2019.
With his book project complete, Col. Almquist has now turned his attention to finding a permanent home for his large (some might say massive) collection of drug promotion memorabilia.
Posted: May 18, 2023
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Upcoming events of interest to historians of pharmacy, pharmaceuticals, medicines, science, and related fields. (Event information current when posted. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, please double-check the status of all events):
July 22-26, 2023: Annual Meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, Aurora, CO.
August 30-September 2, 2023: Biennial Meeting of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, Oslo, Norway.
November 11-14, 2023: Annual Meeting of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy, Dallas, TX.
December 3-7, 2023: Midyear Clinical Meeting of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, Anaheim, CA.
January 4-7, 2024: Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, San Francisco, CA.
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