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Norwegian Immigrant Pharmacists

Norwegian Immigrant Pharmacists


The primary resource for the following information is:

Klevstrand, Rolf.  “From Apothek to Drugstore: Norwegian Immigrant Pharmacists in The United States of America.” Oslo: Cygnus: en norsk farmasihistorisk skriftserie, May 2003.


Approximately 750,000 Norwegians immigrated to the United States between 1825-1915.  Of this total, less than 100 were pharmacists who had been educated in Norway.  Two of the first Norwegian pharmacists to immigrate were Theodora Cormontan’s brothers, Magnus and C.G.V.  Her Danish brother-in-law, pharmacist Edward Lyders, was another early immigrant.  All three practiced in Minnesota, with Magnus and Edward serving as physicians as well as pharmacists.  Theodora lived with her brother C.G.V. for most of the years between 1888 and his death in 1917.  The mixed fortunes he experienced in this country as a first-generation immigrant pharmacist had a profound impact on his sister and her aspiration to be a published composer.


A letter written by two Norwegian pharmacists living in Chicago, Ulrich Heyerdahl and Kristoffer Stange, may have inspired this emigration.  Their letter was published in 1868 on the front page of the prominent Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet.  In this “America letter” Heyerdahl and Stange gave advice and information to pharmacists who were considering immigration to the USA.  They wrote, "Every pharmacist considering emigration must be fully independent and equal to his job as pharmacist. He must have the courage to meet his fate alone and without any support or help, and he must have knowledge of English and German."  They noted that the U.S. was "crowded with American pharmacists," but the German and Scandinavian pharmacists were well off because of their "more complete education." They wrote that pharmacists usually earned $50-60 a month in the United States, but some earned $80-100, which was more than pharmacists earned in Norway.  They asserted, "America is now, and will be still more in the years to come, able to give thousands of pharmacists a decent living.  Here an economical pharmacist can save sufficiently to open his own business within 3-4 years. In Norway this is [rarely the case], as we can only hope for a ‘personal privilege’ to own a pharmacy (Apothek) when we are 40-50 years old."


The law in Norway at the time required a pharmacist to possess a government-issued “personal privilege” in order to open his own pharmacy.  In the 1870’s, when Theodora Cormontan’s brother C.G.V. immigrated to the U. S., a pharmacist needed to work at a drug store an average of 16 years before he would receive this “personal privilege.”  A pharmacist without the privilege would typically receive room and board to live in the building that housed the pharmacy because Norwegian law required pharmacies to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  This system made it difficult for the employed, non-privleged pharmacist to enjoy any kind of social life. For example, in 1890 only 30 of the 150 employed pharmacists in Norway were married, perhaps explaining C.G.V.’s bachelor status.  The long wait for pharmacy ownership and the compromised quality of life during the years of waiting probably compelled most Norwegian pharmacists who left Norway for the United States during this time to make that decision, including C.G.V.


Pharmacists from Norway were often better trained than their American counterparts in the upper Midwest before the 1880’s.  Essentially anyone could run a drug store until the state instituted a Pharmacy Law to regulate the profession. Iowa passed its Pharmacy Law in 1880, Illinois in 1881, Wisconsin in 1882, and Minnesota not until 1885, the year C.G.V. began operating the Franklin Drug Store in Franklin, Minnesota.  Conversely, there was at least one issue that negatively impacted Norwegian-trained pharmacists of this period.  While they claimed to have been educated at the University of Christiania, Norwegian pharmacists had been trained at the chemical laboratory of the university but were not technically enrolled there.  Pharmacy was not established as a university education in Norway until 1923.  In 1885 this technicality of enrollment prompted the president of the Illinois State Board of Pharmacy to not register Norwegian pharmacists.  States like Iowa and Minnesota continued to register Norwegian pharmacists, which may explain why C.G.V. lived first in Iowa and then Minnesota.


Two Norwegian pharmacists immigrated to the USA in the 1850’s.  Both of them practiced in Chicago.  At least seven more pharmacists arrived from Norway between 1866-1869.  Six of these settled in Chicago.  The seventh, Peter Rønning, died in Willmar, MN in 1873.  If he was a practicing pharmacist in Willmar, he was likely the first pharmacist from Norway to practice in Minnesota. 


However, the Klevstrand source also mentions Theodora’s brother Magnus, noting that he may have immigrated during the 1866-1869 period.  We know Magnus was in Trondheim in 1865 and was practicing in Pelican Rapids, MN at least by 1878.  If Rønning did not serve Willmar as a pharmacist, Magnus was probably Minnesota’s first pharmacist from Norway.


Klevstrand reports seven Norwegian phamacists coming to the USA between 1870-1879, five of the seven after 1876.  Klevstrand does not list C.G.V. Cormontan in this list, even though he immigrated in 1873.  He eventually located in Iowa, where he likely did at least some pharmacy work in addition to teaching.  He moved to Sacred Heart, MN by 1881, where he likely assisted doctor/pharmacist Edward Lyders, husband of C.G.V.’s sister Marie.  By 1885 C.G.V. ran his own drug store in Franklin, MN.


A larger wave of 39 Norwegian immigrant pharmacists came to the US in the 1880’s, no doubt due to difficult economic times in Norway.   Seven of this wave settled in Minnesota, but it is unlikely that any of them were practicing in Minnesota before 1886.  This means that C.G.V. was one of the very first Norwegian-born pharmacists in Minnesota.  It is very possible that Magnus and he were the first two Norwegian-born pharmacists in this state.  If not, they almost certainly were second and third.


Some Norwegian immigrant pharmacists were financially successful.  Typically, they lived and worked in larger metropolitan areas with a greater number of Norwegians and immigrants from other Nordic countries.  Some Norwegian pharmacists in small towns seem to have had financial problems.  Rolf Klevstrand writes, “Both Paul Grønvold and Peter O. Bugge ran drugstores in small towns in North Dakota.  When Grønvold died in 1932, Bugge wrote in an obituary in a Norwegian pharmaceutical journal: ‘Pharmacist Gronvold has been sick for the last years.  The strenuous and dismal work in American drugstores has probably helped undermine his health.’  This remarkable statement is no testimony of fulfilled dreams!”  We know C.G.V. declared bankruptcy in 1900 and was so poor when he died in 1917 that the county buried him in an unmarked grave.


To quote Klevstrand in closing, “Like the about 120 immigrant physicians, [Norwegian immigrant pharmacists] can be described as a special group of Norwegian immigrants that without doubt contributed to make life more smooth and secure for the large crowd of Norwegian immigrants. Probably they saw themselves as professional persons, responsible for providing Norwegian and other Scandinavian immigrants with medicines and other commodities, besides making a living for themselves.”








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