At the turn of the 20th century, there were a number of successful drug stores (pharmacies) in Iowa City. Whetstones opened on the corner of Clinton and Washington – 32 S. Clinton – in 1880, while Shrader Drug opened in 1899, just down the street – 132 S. Clinton. Both were family affairs. Read more here.
But four years before Whetstones opened their famous drug store, in 1876, Emil L. Boerner, son of German immigrant, H.W. Boerner, opened Boerner’s Pharmacy in Iowa City. Like Whetstone’s (1880) and Shrader’s (1899), Boerner’s drug store was a family business, employing three pharmacists, Poppa H.W., and his two sons, Emil and Edwin Boerner. In later years, the pharmacy included H.W.’s grandson, Frederick, as well.
Poppa Henry William (H.W.) Boerner was born in Siegen, Prussia (Germany) on November 9, 1822, marrying Carolyn Boecking (b-1827) before having their first son – Emil Louis – in 1855. Trained as a druggist, H. W. moved his small family to America in 1858, having their second son – Edwin – in 1861, before finally relocating to Iowa City in 1867.
Their oldest boy, Emil, went back east to study at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, graduating in 1876 with a successful thesis that explored the commercial potential of castor oil. His production ideas went on to earn millions of dollars for manufacturers, but for Emil, he came back to Iowa City with only a diploma and a dream.
Undeterred, Emil, along with his proud poppa, took their expertise and opened one of Iowa City’s first pharmacies (1876), moving it to 113 E. Washington Street in 1883. From this location, the Boerners filled prescriptions for Iowa City residents and out-of-town health care providers for the next sixty-three years (1946). Early prescription records indicate that medicinal preparations ranged from cocaine, morphine sulfate, morphine pills, and belladonna, to quinine, sarsaparilla syrup, and strychnine!
In 1880, Emil Boerner and George Schafer, the first president of the Iowa Pharmaceutical Association, urged SUI officials to establish a pharmacy education program in Iowa City. Five years later (1885), the idea came to fruition with Emil becoming the College of Pharmacy’s first dean and the sole faculty member, teaching his first class of 13 students – twelve men and one woman.
Under Boerner’s leadership, the College of Pharmacy was a big success, moving into the new Hall of Pharmacy and Chemistry (Chemistry Laboratory) on the corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue in 1892.
(P-0278) In the late 1800’s, there were numerous companies around the U.S. manufacturing pharmaceuticals. This rare early trading card (above) was part of a series produced for Dr. Jayne’s Family Medicines in Philadelphia – this one promoting Dr. Jayne’s Tonic Vermifuge which was good for your kids’ tummy, especially if they got worms! Sold locally by Black Brothers in Coralville.
(C-0279) Another pharmacy in Iowa City at the turn of the century was Barry Company, who specialized in veterinarian pharmaceuticals. Below are a couple of examples of good folks around Iowa who need “eye medicine” to treat ophthalmia (moon-blindness) in their horses.
Emil Boerner successfully served as the dean of the College of Pharmacy until 1903, when he tendered his resignation to the Board of Regents so he could devote more time to his growing business venture, The Boerner-Fry Company. This new business was a natural outflow from both Boerner’s Pharmacy and the College of Pharmacy, focusing on the production and marketing of varied pharmaceuticals, toiletries, perfumes, and vanilla extract.
Boerner-Fry first started in 1897 when Emil partnered with Johnson County Savings Bank cashier William A. Fry and a “number of energetic businessmen with abundant capital,” according to an 1899 Gazette story. In August of 1899, Emil and William hired local contractor, Jacob J. Hotz, to construct a new factory building two blocks east of Boerner’s Pharmacy – 332 E Washington Street – the corner of Washington & Gilbert Streets.
(M-0119) A 5-ounce Boerner-Fry extract bottle (above) from the early 1900’s.
The Boerner-Fry building housed a fully-equipped, state-of-the-art pharmaceutical laboratory for producing a line of toiletries that included products imported from Ceylon, France and other exotic locations throughout Europe.
From 1900 to 1915, representatives from Boerner-Fry traveled the country, purchasing pure vanilla beans from growers, and selling finished products to clients. Their building on Washington Street housed huge tanks that held more than 250 gallons of vanilla extract, plus tiers of barrels containing thousands of gallons of processed oils to supply to the company’s growing list of customers.
Emil, who first displayed his keen interest in pharmaceutical marketing with his college thesis, went back to the drawing board, filing for a patent on a device for cooling and dispensing beverages in August 1908. According to his patent application, which was approved in 1910, Emil envisioned a device…
…comprising an outer receptacle whose wall is provided with a filling of non-conducting material, a base having a concentric groove in which said receptacle rests, and a conical pipe seat or support, an inner concentrically arranged semi-cylindrical receptacle of slightly less diameter than the interior of the outer receptacle, a conical volute coil of pipe communicating with the bottom of the inner receptacle and the pipe support.
Wow, Emil – apparently you were right there in the earliest days of the great American “ice-less” soda fountain!
Sadly, business for Boerner-Fry waned when Emil’s partner, William Fry, died of pneumonia on April 8, 1916. Without the support of their key financial backer, the company closed within a few months of Fry’s death.
Emil, age 61, went back to tending his family business while the Boerner-Fry building was eventually purchased by Iowa City businessman Hayes Carson (1922), who converted it into the 46-room Washington Hotel. In 1952, it became known as the Davis Hotel (1952-1972), and because of its age and its unique uses, the building still stands today, added to the National Register of Historic Places in January of 1983.
The Prussian poppa, Henry William Boerner (b-1822) died in 1906, at the age of 84. His wife, Caroline Boecking Boerner (b-1827) died in 1918, at the age of 91. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.
In Our Iowa Heritage collection, we have three postal covers addressed to H.W. Boerner, dated from 1889-1890, when H.W. was in his latter years of life.
H.W. and Caroline’s oldest son, Emil Louis Boerner (b-1855) died May 28, 1933 at the age of 78, and is buried with his parents, and his wife Helen Louis (1859-1948) at Oakland Cemetery. Their younger son, Edwin Arthur Boerner (b-1861) died in 1934 and is buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, California.
In 1946, Emil’s son, Frederick W. Boerner, took over the business, moving it to 15 S. Clinton Street and adding a soda fountain. In the 1950’s, Boerner’s Pharmacy made its final move, ending up at 1004 Melrose Avenue in University Heights, a stone’s throw from Iowa (Kinnick) Stadium. Frederick (b-1893) died on May 12, 1981 at age 87. He and his wife Sarah (1909-2004) are buried at Oakland Cemetery as well.
Here’s to the Prussian-born Boerner family – three amazing generations of Iowa City pharmacists. Godspeed!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.