January 19: Connecticut’s First African-American Woman Pharmacist


Born in Hartford on January 19, 1886, young Anna Louise James was the eighth of 11 children born to Willis James, a former slave who had successfully escaped from a Virginia plantation via the Underground Railroad. As a child, Anna’s family moved from Hartford to Old Saybrook, where she graduated high school and, as a diligent student, sought to pursue some form of higher education. Anna’s large, extended family included two of the only black pharmacists practicing in Connecticut, who likely inspired her to apply to the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy in New York City. She was the only woman in her graduating class, and in 1908, she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the institute. The very next year, she successfully applied for a license in her home state, becoming the first African-American female pharmacist in Connecticut history.

After college, Anna returned to Old Saybrook to work for her brother-in-law Peter Lane, who had opened the shoreline town’s first drug store several years earlier and installed a soda fountain that made the store a favorite destination for local children. In 1917, after Lane accepted a pharmaceutical sales position for a drug company in Hartford, Anna became the primary manager of the property, and finally assumed sole leadership in 1922. “Miss James,” as she was fondly known throughout the community, promptly renamed the establishment “James’ Pharmacy,” and continued running the store — and soda fountain — for nearly five decades until her retirement in 1967. Living on the upper floors of the historic, late 18th century building that housed her pharmacy, Miss James became a fixture in the downtown Old Saybrook community and a favorite neighbor to the many children — and adults — that frequented James’ popular soda fountain, which included famous Old Saybrook resident Katharine Hepburn.

Anna James was only one of the path-breaking members of her specially accomplished family. Her niece, Ann Lane Petry, daughter of Peter Lane and Bertha James Lane also became a pharmacist and worked in family pharmacy. She went on to become a writer of novels, short stories and children’s books whose 1946 work The Street was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.

James Pharmacy .png
The James Pharmacy continues to serve Old Saybrook as an ice cream parlor and bed and breakfast.

After Anna James’ death in 1977 at the age of 91, the venerable James Pharmacy building remained vacant for several years before being purchased and reopened as an ice cream parlor. It subsequently and currently serves as a Gelateria and bed and breakfast. The handsome structure, which Anna Louise James had poured so much time and effort into maintaining, is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and, in recognition of James’ professional achievements as a woman of color, a featured stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. A pharmaceutical pioneer and beloved community leader, born today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Tedd Levy, “Miss James: First Woman Pharmacist in CT, Right in Old Saybrook, Shoreline Times via connecticuthistory.org

Anna Louise James Makes History with Medicine,” connecticuthistory.org

Our History,” The James Pharmacy Bed and Breakfast • Gelateria