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Founded in 1980

he first state-level medical history society to have a website.  Our goal is to promote interest, research, and writing in medical history, and we are dedicated to the discussion and enjoyment of the history of medicine and allied fields.


David L. Cowen, 1 September 1909 – 14 April 2006


World-renowned historian of pharmacy David L. Cowen died of heart failure at the age of ninety-six on Good Friday, 14 April 2006. With his passing the pharmacy community has lost a peerless scholar, and we, the authors, a cherished friend and mentor.   

The youngest of three children, Dave was born on 1 September 1909 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He moved to Newark just before his fifth birthday, and attended public schools there. He then went on to Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, where he earned his bachelor’s (1930) and master’s (1931) degrees in history and political science. Dave’s was the first Rutgers class to graduate during the Depression, and jobs were scarce. Fortunately, within a year of his graduation, the Rutgers College of Pharmacy, located in Newark at that time, began a four-year baccalaureate program and needed a liberal arts teacher. Based on a recommendation from his former history professor, Mark M. Heald, Dave joined the College of Pharmacy faculty in 1933 as a part-time instructor in American history. Dave was paid $300 for teaching “Contemporary Civilization,” a two-semester course in world history for freshmen. Later, “General Economics,” a two-semester course for seniors, was added to his course load -- without additional compensation -- when the instructor hired for the position backed out because of language difficulties. At the same time Dave taught seventh and eighth grades in the Newark public school system for an annual salary of $2,200. Dave once quipped that he never kept his students after school, because he had to leave promptly at 3:15 pm in order to make his four o’clock class at the College of Pharmacy. 

In 1944 Dean Ernest Little of the College of Pharmacy endorsed Dave’s candidacy for a newly opened position in the history department at University College, Rutgers’s liberal arts school for adults and part-time students. Dave was hired, and for the next year adhered to the grueling schedule of teaching in the Newark schools until 3:15 pm, followed by his stint at the College of Pharmacy until 6 pm, and finally ending the day at University College at 10 pm. This left little time for his family. Dave later reminisced that his wife, Mae, “never complained and backed me in everything I was doing. And my son, Bruce, always able to care for himself . . . never complained that he wasn’t getting enough attention from his dad.”

 When, in 1945, he was offered a full-time faculty appointment as an assistant professor of history at University College, he severed his ties with the Newark public schools and the College of Pharmacy.  Although he maintained an office on the main campus in New Brunswick, most of his lectures were delivered at the Newark branch. Dave became full professor in 1960 and then chairman of the history department until his retirement as Professor II (a distinguished rank) in 1974.

Dave returned to the College of Pharmacy in 1952, at Dean Roy A. Bowers’s request, to teach the history of pharmacy. Dave tackled this new assignment with extraordinary diligence, for, as he later wrote, “in the United States at the time it was a virgin field in which I could make a contribution.” Since he lacked formal training in science, Dave took an institutional, legislative, and bibliographic approach to his new field of study and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history. Dave’s seminal works on the history of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia, British pharmacopeial literature, America’s pre-pharmacopeial literature, and American colonial laws pertaining to pharmacy are credited with putting the discipline of the history of pharmacy on the academic map.  

From 1952 until his retirement, Dave taught concurrently at the College of Pharmacy and University College.  During this time he was also the book review editor for Pharmacy in History, and served on the councils of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP), the International Society for the History of Pharmacy, and the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM).  

As proof of Dave’s growing stature among historians of pharmacy one need look no further than the gold standard in the field, Glenn Sonnedecker’s Kremers and Urdang’s History of Pharmacy, 3rd. edition (1963). Dave is cited in the acknowledgments, text (50 citations to 21 of his works), and appendix 3 on pharmacy laws in the United States.

Dave’s definitive papers on the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia (Med. Hist., 1957, 1: 123-139, 340-351) established that these distinguished books went through twelve editions – ten in Latin and two in English – from 1699 to 1841, and that the periodical changes these volumes had undergone reflected the impact that progress in the basic sciences had on medicine and pharmacy. To accomplish this feat, Dave had to master bibliographic notation, a skill he learned from Gertrude L. Annan, then Associate Librarian of the New York Academy of Medicine.

In a publishing career that spanned seven decades, Dave authored 192  articles, 140 book reviews, and 19 monographs and books. Dave’s landmark  book, Medicine and Health in New Jersey: A History (1964), written at the invitation of  New Jersey’s Tercentennial Commission, is a model of local history. He avoided the pitfalls common to this genre by relating what was happening in New Jersey to what was unfolding nationally in medicine. Dave showed that the Garden State was a leader in the country’s public health movements for mosquito control, certified milk, sanitation, and pure food and drugs in the late nineteenth century. 

 Dave’s Pharmacy: An Illustrated History (1990), coauthored with William H. Helfand, noted collector of pharmaceutical art and ephemera, was translated into German (1990), Spanish (1991), and Italian (1997). This elegantly written and exquisitely produced book provided American pharmacy students with a much-needed perspective of the evolution of their profession at a time when history of pharmacy courses were fast disappearing – even as electives – from the curricula of the nation’s pharmacy schools.

In 1961 Dave became the first nonpharmacist to serve as president of the AIHP. He had already been one of the few nonpharmacists elected to honorary membership in the Rho Chi Society (1956), the honor society for colleges of pharmacy. Dave’s numerous professional honors include the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching from Rutgers University (1961), the AIHP’s Kremers Award for Distinguished Pharmaco-Historical Writing (1965), the Alpha Zeta Omega pharmaceutical fraternity’s Man of the Year Award (1970), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Pharmazie’s Ferchl Medal (1972), the Academia Italiano de Storia della Farmacia’s Cestoni Medal (1973), the Rutgers University Medal (1974), the Gideon DeLaune Lecture Award from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London (1976), the AIHP’s Urdang Medal (1977), the International Society for the History of Pharmacy’s Schelenz Plaquette (1983), a Litt. D. (honoris causa) from Rutgers University (1984), election to the Hall of Distinguished Alumni of Rutgers University (1992), the Continuing Lifetime Achievement Award of the AAHM (1994), and the 2001 David L. Cowen Award from the Medical History Society of New Jersey (MHSNJ). 

In 1989, on the occasion of Dave’s eightieth birthday, Rutgers College of Pharmacy (now the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy) established the nation’s first lecture series in the history of pharmacy and named it in his honor. Dave himself was the Cowen Lecturer in 2000, and spoke on Renaissance pharmacy. Afterward he joked that he would give another Cowen Lecture when he turned a hundred. Sadly, he could not keep this promise.  

One of the founders of the MHSNJ, Dave served as its second president (1982-84).  He wore many hats in those fledgling years, and did everything from arranging programs to lining up speakers to lodging guests at his home.  His great enthusiasm even got him a speeding ticket once when he drove the Society’s Saffron Lecturer, Lloyd Stevenson, to the Trenton railroad station.  Dave’s devotion to the MHSNJ never waned.  He attended Executive Committee meetings in Newark well into his nineties.  In recognition of this tireless dedication, in 2001 the MHSNJ established the David L. Cowen Award for Achievement in the History of Medicine. Dave was the first recipient of the coveted marble bookends.

In 2004, at Dave’s invitation, several MHSNJ members began meeting monthly for lunch and lively discussions at his home in Rossmoor, a retirement community in Monroe Township, New Jersey. We dubbed ourselves the Lunar Society after the famed 18th-century group of British intellectuals that met each month on the night of a full moon. Initially, the group consisted of Dave, Sandra Moss, Karen Reeds, and Vincent Cirillo. However, as news of our luncheons spread, we were soon joined by five others. Ever the educator, Dave could not resist devising work for us. The current MHSNJ Newsletter series titled “Profiles in New Jersey Health and Medicine” was hatched at one of our Lunar meetings. Dave took great delight in these get-togethers; they seemed to rejuvenate him. Our spirits were renewed too, because it was inspiring to be with this remarkable man whose brilliant mind, as Cicero remarked of another, stood out of reach of the body’s decay. 

Dave is survived by a son from his first marriage (1934-1961) to Mae Wisokolsky, Bruce R. Cowen, M.D., of Edison, New Jersey; three stepdaughters from his second marriage (1972-1988) to Florence Weisberg: Joan Jay of Livingston, New Jersey; Susan Rinsky of Cupertino, California; and Liz Kupperman of Great Barrington, Massachusetts; nine grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Repositories of Coweniana:  Dave’s personal library and his collection of rare books in the history of pharmacy now reside with Special Collections, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. His vast correspondence (1933-1984) can be found at the Rutgers University Archives, also located in Alexander Library. Composed mostly of typed professional and personal letters to and from many notables in the history of pharmacy and medicine, the collection reflects Dave’s deep and longstanding commitment to the development and growth of the history of pharmacy as an academic discipline. The Cowen Collection of more than 5,000 reprints, articles, photostats, etc., connected with the history of pharmacy, is located at the AIHP in Madison, Wisconsin. A 162-page typed transcript of Vincent J. Cirillo and Stuart K. Sammis’s oral history interview with Dave in 1984 is on deposit at Special Collections, the George F. Smith Library, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Newark, New Jersey.



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