Remembering Glenn Sonnedecker

Glenn Sonnedecker and rare books, 1968
Glenn Sonnedecker in the University of Wisconsin Library Rare Book Room in 1968. Image courtesy of the AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

Glenn Sonnedecker (1917–2021), a leading historian of pharmacy and a former Director of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, died on June 25, 2021 at the age of 103.

In a special tribute to “Glenn,” as he was known to all of us at the Institute, AIHP’s President, W. Clarke Ridgway, noted his many contributions:

The world-wide history of pharmacy community mourns the passing of Glenn Sonnedecker—for over 70 years the face of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. Revered by colleagues across our country and around the globe, Glenn represented the very best of American pharmacy history. Author, researcher, teacher, AIHP leader, passionate proponent of the discipline, mentor, gentleman, friend to all, Glenn will be greatly missed but fondly remembered by all who knew him.

Glenn Sonnedecker and Greg Higby in 2016
Greg Higby and Glenn Sonnedecker (right) at AIHP’s 75th Birthday celebration in 2016. Image courtesy of the AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

During the second half of the twentieth century, few historians of pharmacy and pharmaceuticals contributed more to the field. John Parascandola, PhD, who succeeded Glenn as AIHP’s Director in 1973, described him as “a giant in the field.” He was a true scholar, a man with a deep and probing intellect, and a mentor to a generation of historians. One such mentee, Gregory J. Higby, PhD, AIHP’s former Executive Director, described Glenn as “my role model as a pharmacist-historian. He exemplified thorough historical method combined with pharmaceutical knowledge and professionalism.”

He was also a kind, unassuming, and very human man, especially to his friends and colleagues at AIHP. Elaine Stroud, PhD, AIHP’s former Assistant Director, who worked closely with Glenn for more than 30 years, recalls “his wit and dry sense of humor, and his laugh. They will be greatly missed.” Greg Higby recalls that “it was a privilege to work with him and experience his wisdom and good humor.”

Glenn grew up in a small town in Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University in 1942 with a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy, Glenn settled in Washington, DC, where he soon became the editor of the Practical Pharmacy Edition of the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association.

Glenn left that position in 1948 to become the first graduate student in the new history of pharmacy program established at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy by the legendary historian George Urdang. Glenn enrolled as an AIHP member later that year, beginning an association that would continue for more than 70 years. Urdang, AIHP’s founding director, named Glenn the organization’s Secretary in 1949.

With Urdang as his major professor, Glenn earned his PhD in in the history of pharmacy and the history of science in 1952. That same year, when University rules compelled Urdang’s retirement from the faculty, the UW School of Pharmacy hired Glenn as an Assistant Professor to assume Urdang’s academic position. Glenn was promoted to Associate Professor in 1956 (with a joint appointment in the UW’s History of Science Department) and to Professor in 1960.

Glenn quickly became known in the international pharmacy history community. He was elected to the International Academy of the History of Pharmacy in 1954. He was a Fulbright Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow in 1955–56, affording him the opportunity to study in England and Germany.

Glenn Sonnedecker in 1966
Glenn Sonnedecker in 1966. Image courtesy of the AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

Glenn succeeded Urdang as AIHP’s Director in 1957. Two years later, he founded the Institute’s academic journal, Pharmacy in History. In the first issue, Glenn explained that the journal’s purpose was to provide “a stimulus to historical writing, reading, or collecting; information on AIHP’s activities and services, evaluation of publications having interest to members; and reports and announcements about events and people, in whatever country, that concern the humanistic interests of the pharmacist.”

In many ways, “the humanistic interests of the pharmacist” was at the core of Glenn’s scholarship. His research and writing in the field was broad, but often concentrated on favorite topics including pharmaceutical education, the regulation of medicines, and the social and humanistic aspects of the pharmaceutical profession. Glenn was perhaps best known as the revisor of the monumental Kremers and Urdang’s History of Pharmacy. After assisting Urdang with revisions to the second edition in 1951, Glenn substantially revised and updated the text, producing a third edition in 1963 and a fourth edition in 1976. Glenn’s revised editions have been read and studied by countless pharmacists and historians around the world. François Ledermann reports that the book “accompanied my first steps” as a young historian of pharmacy.

As a faculty member at the UW School of Pharmacy, Glenn played a key role in developing what became the School’s Social and Administrative Sciences Division, including a program in the Social Aspects of Pharmacy. Working with Prof. John Parascandola, he implemented innovative teaching methods in his courses, including audio-tutorial units and multi-media lectures.

Over the course of his career, Glenn advised several doctoral students, most notably Ernst W. Stieb, who served for many years on the faculty of the University of Toronto School of Pharmacy, and Gregory J. Higby, who served as AIHP’s Executive Director from 1986 to 2018.

Glenn also introduced a generation of Wisconsin pharmacy students to the history of their profession through a required survey course he developed and taught. One of his students, former AIHP President William Zellmer, reports that Glenn’s “scholarly interests, erudition, wisdom, and style were a source of great inspiration for this Wisconsin farm boy.” Another student, who went on to become a professor of pharmacology and the dean of a pharmacy school, confessed that some students found the course “boring but with occasional sparks of interest,” but noted that “[i]t is only later in life do we appreciate his historical research and academic endeavors.”

AIHP President Clarke Ridgway, has fond memories of Glenn’s style of teaching:

As any student of Glenn’s can no doubt attest, his strict attention to historical detail and dedication to clear, concise writing were softened by his gentle nature and words of encouragement. His critiques, corrections and guidance were typically punctuated by a wry smile and soft chuckle when the “lights went on” in his student’s mind and will ever be cherished by those of us lucky to have been under his tutelage.

Glenn stepped down as AIHP’s Director in 1973 and was succeeded by John Parascandola. When John left in 1981 to become Chief of the Historical Division of the National Library of Medicine, Glenn was persuaded to return as Director, and he served in that role until 1985. He was then named AIHP Honorary Director for life.

Throughout his long career, Glenn actively promoted scholarship in the field of pharmacy history around the world. He served on the Executive Committee of the International Society for the History of Pharmacy for more than 20 years and attended at least 12 of the organization’s biennial meetings around the world. He served as the Honorary Chair of the 1983 International Congress for the History of Pharmacy, which was hosted by AIHP. Having been inducted into the International Academy of the History of Pharmacy early in his career, he went on to serve as the organization’s president from 1983 to 1991.

Glenn Sonnedecker and Lucas Richert in 2019
Glenn Sonnedecker (left) and Lucas Richert, current AIHP Historical Director, in 2019. Image courtesy of the AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

During his career, Sonnedecker received several prestigious awards including the Schelenz Plaquette (1971), the George Urdang Medal (1976), the Edward Kremers Award (1964), and the Remington Honor Medal (1972). He received honorary degrees from The Ohio State University (1964), the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy (1974), and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (1989). He was named the Honorary President of the American Pharmacists Association in 1985.

Glenn assumed Professor Emeritus status in 1986, but he remained active long after his formal retirement. He served as a contributing editor for the book 150 Years of Caring: A Pictorial History of the American Pharmaceutical Association (2002) and as an editor, with David Cowen and Gregory Higby, of the book Drugstore Memories (AIHP, 2002). He often attended AIHP board meetings and volunteered his time and expertise when asked by anyone interested in the history of pharmacy. In his final years, he always welcomed visits from AIHP colleagues, and he was particularly delighted to meet Lucas Richert, AIHP’s Historical Director, in 2019.

During his long life, Glenn contributed so much to deepen and broaden our understanding of the history of pharmacy and pharmaceuticals. He also touched the lives of pharmacists, historians, and many others around the world. We are all greatly indebted to him. AIHP President Clarke Ridgway provided a most fitting final tribute for Glenn: “Thank you, Glenn, for showing us all the path to be taken in the pursuit of the history of pharmacy.”


Pictures of Glenn Sonnedecker’s long career of teaching students and assisting researchers. All images courtesy of the AIHP Kremers Reference Files.

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