Runge devotes storied career to the disenfranchised

Barriers cleared for women, black, employee community pharmacists

Mary Munson Runge testifying at a Congressional hearing as APhA President

Taking office as President of APhA in 1979, Mary Munson Runge said her goal was to increase membership among women, minority, and employee pharmacists. Runge knew a thing or two about all three—she was the first woman, the first African American, and the first employee community pharmacist elected president of APhA—ending a 126-year trend of whites, men, and mostly pharmacy owners.

“The lion’s share of the responsibility is on the shoulders of … members and leaders of local and state associations to actively recruit and welcome these members,” Runge explained as she sought to increase the bonds between APhA and the state pharmacy associations.

Mary Munson Runge

Pharmacists remember Runge as having personally made them feel welcome in the Association and inspiring them to advance in their careers and leadership roles regardless of their gender, race, or age. Her efforts to establish a Task Force on Women in Pharmacy and later an Office of Women’s Affairs within APhA were instrumental in creating a favorable environment as feminization of the profession occurred swiftly.

Runge’s aim wasn’t simply to diversify APhA’s membership. As a leader and as a community pharmacist, Runge sought to empower the disenfranchised.

In 1980, Runge and William S. Apple, APhA Executive Director, speak with Patricia Robert Harris, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Jimmy Carter.

“She built bridges and put out a hand in a way that really transformed APhA,” said Lucinda Maine, BSPharm, PhD, Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. President of the Student American Pharmaceutical Association—predecessor of the APhA Academy of Student Pharmacists—during Runge’s APhA presidency, Maine recalled that “the Association wasn’t a hospitable environment for recent grads” before Runge’s term.

Maine was active in the Young Pharmacists Caucus, which she described as “underground and clandestine” in response to fears that the “old boys” of APhA would squash the group if it made too much noise.

The first year the caucus had its own public meeting room at an APhA Annual Meeting, Runge, by then the first Chairwoman of the Board, came to a meeting and “declared that it was time for us to come up from underground. She was saying, ‘Regardless of gender, race, or age, you have work to do, and we welcome you in this society,’” Maine said.

Lawrence “LB” Brown, PharmD, PhD, Professor and Vice-Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Tennessee, also recalls feeling excluded as a budding pharmacist at his first APhA conference until he met Runge. “She just took me under her wing,” he said.

Throughout his career, Brown frequently sought Runge’s advice.

“She didn’t pull any punches, and she wasn’t afraid to take on the issues, but always with a sense of humor,” he said.

Like Brown, many who called Runge a mentor saw her not simply as a professional support, but more like an adopted mother, as Brown described her.

“And she calls him her son,” recalled Wilma Wong, PharmD, the second female president of the California Pharmacists Association (CPhA), 17 years after Runge held the office. “She eventually adopted me as her daughter,” recalls Wong. “We were family.”

Wong was a student at the University of California, San Francisco, when Runge became Speaker of the House for CPhA. “So I saw this wonderful black woman up at the podium taking care of business. She was really an icon in pharmacy, someone you would strive to be like.”

“Mary fostered a lot of us in leadership roles,” Wong told Pharmacy Today.

Runge receiving California's Pharmacist of the Year award from California Pharmacists Association President Steve Dibble

In encouraging others to follow in her footsteps, Runge often reminded pharmacists, “The reason I was the first black and the first woman [president of APhA] is that I was the first black and the first woman to have ever run for that office,” she said in a 1979 speech before the Colegio de Farmacéuticos de Puerto Rico, one of many Runge delivered during an extensive travel schedule as APhA President.

Runge’s focus on the disenfranchised began long before Runge ever took a leadership role in the profession. In fact, it was long before she ever became a pharmacist.

Raised in the small town of Donaldsonville, LA, Mary was the daughter of a physician, John Harvey Lowery, MD, who also owned the town’s first pharmacy, where Mary eventually worked. Known as one of the most successful businessmen in Donaldsonville, Lowery used his wealth to help the poor.

“People would come in the drugstore, and say, ‘I don’t think I can pay for this, but the doctor says I have to have it,’” Runge remembers. “And my father would say, ‘Fill it and don’t charge them.’”

These scenes played out all too often in the Louisiana pharmacy and sent the young Mary home in tears.

“A woman would come in and say, ‘How much is this going to be? I don’t have but a dollar.’ And I’d go home and I’d sit and I’d cry,” Runge told Today. “We had the opportunity to help people. It was our duty. My father had done it. And I would do it, too.”

This drive to help poor blacks led Runge to work part-time at the Apothecary, Sylvester Flowers’s pharmacy in economically depressed eastern Oakland, CA, in the late 1960s.

Runge practicing pharmacy in Oakland, CA

“Mary could have worked anywhere in California.” recalls Flowers. “People respected her and offered her opportunities. But I worked in the ghetto. And Mary preferred to practice in that environment because we really practiced pharmacy in the counseling, the reaching out to educate in populations that needed it the most. She couldn’t have found that in the university or political setting.”

Runge’s part-time schedule allowed her to pursue political activities and leadership roles for which she has earned extensive recognition and awards. She’s received honorary doctor of pharmacy degrees. She’s held federal appointments on the Institute of Medicine Pharmacy Advisory Panel, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the Prescription Drug Payment Review Commission.

Over the course of her career, Runge saw women come to occupy half of a once male-dominated profession—a movement she certainly helped lead. “We got the chance to be equal to men,” she said. “There was a time when drugstores wouldn’t even hire women.”

But these accomplishments, Runge says, were not the greatest experiences of her career.

“The greatest experience was helping poor African American people who couldn’t even pay for their medicine. Pharmacy gave me an opportunity to help people who needed help.”