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Fowler, Gwendolyn Wilson, 1907-1997



  • Existence: 1907 - 1997


Gwendolyn Mary Wilson was born to Fannie Robinson Wilson and Dr. Cornelius Wilson in Dardanelle, Arkansas on December 8, 1907. Dr. Wilson moved the family to Des Moines, Iowa in August 1913 where he set up an office and continued with his medical practice. Dr. Wilson died in 1916. Fannie Wilson married Olin Cooper in 1937.   Gwendolyn Wilson attended Bryant Elementary School and West High School in Des Moines. Determined that her daughter get the best education possible, Fannie Wilson made arrangements for Gwendolyn to attend a special preparatory high school located on the campus of Rust College, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wilson graduated with honors in 1926 before returning to Iowa, where she was accepted to the College of Pharmacy at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. After attending the University of Iowa for a year, Wilson transferred to the Des Moines College of Pharmacy, which later became the Drake College of Pharmacy. When Wilson graduated with a pharmaceutical/chemist degree (Ph.C.) in 1930, she became the first black woman to obtain a pharmaceutical degree and to be officially registered as a pharmacist in the state of Iowa.   Although Wilson was highly qualified and certified by the state to practice pharmacy, she was unable to find work as a pharmacist. Wilson would later blame this on the economy during the Depression, labor legislation that restricted the number of hours women could work, and racism. Unable to find work in Iowa, Wilson returned to Holly Springs, Mississippi and taught seventh grade for a year before returning to Des Moines again. Wilson got a job waiting tables before being hired by Winnie (Mrs. N.E.) Coffin as a maid. In 1936, Wilson accompanied Coffin on a world tour to purchase artwork for the Des Moines Art Museum then under construction. The two women traveled extensively in China, Japan, Sumatra, Bali, Java, Singapore, and Australia. Their tour ended abruptly in August 1937 when Coffin died in Japan. Following Mrs. Coffin's death, Wilson returned to Des Moines where she married Lafe H. Fowler on January 19, 1938. They were divorced in 1946.   Gwendolyn Wilson Fowler finally obtained employment in her field in 1944 when she was hired by the State of Iowa Department of Health as a pharmacist's clerk. In 1950, Fowler took a position as a chemist in the Iowa State Department of Agriculture laboratory. As a temporary consultant on a special project, Fowler caught the attention of President Eisenhower's administration. Fowler became one of only nine women (and the only woman of color) to be selected for Foreign Service positions higher than secretary. In 1955, Fowler was assigned as a program analyst in Saigon, Vietnam where she was stationed for four years. After completing her Foreign Service assignment, Fowler returned to Des Moines and the Iowa State Department of Agriculture laboratory. In 1962, Fowler was hired by the Broadlawns Polk County Hospital as a staff pharmacist, a position she held until her retirement in 1974.   During her retirement, Fowler was active in volunteer organizations, including Wilkie House, the Red Cross, and the United Way. Fowler also served on the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) board of directors, the State Drug Abuse Council and the Des Moines Civic Music Board. Governor Robert Ray appointed Fowler to the Iowa Statewide Health Coordinating Council. Fowler was a lifetime member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was also a member of the Des Moines Sister City Commission, the Des Moines Women's Club, and the Drake University Alumni Association. In 1987, Fowler was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.   Fowler died in November 1997.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Gwendolyn Fowler papers

Identifier: IWA0365

The first African American woman pharmacist licensed in Iowa and presidential appointee to the United States Foreign Service in the 1950s.

Dates: 1905-1996