O. Newton King is old school when it comes to being a pharmacist.
King is a compounding pharmacist who combines ingredients to concoct alternate dosage forms. He often tweaks medicines by enhancing their flavor, making them easier for patients -- and even pets -- to swallow.
"If all I have at my disposal is what is commercially available, I'm no better than any other pharmacist," said King, a pharmacist for 40 years and owner of King Pharmacy at the Medical Plaza Building, 1112 W. Sixth St. "When I can make a unique dosage form for someone, I'll do it. Maybe the commercial thing available is too strong and needs to be weakened."
Compounding skills by pharmacists in the area are dwindling, King said.
"In Kansas, there are probably 20 practitioners like myself that have dedicated their practice to compounding," said King, named compounding pharmacist of the year in 1988. "Part of it is economics. In Lawrence, if you have a classical prescription for some drug, you have 20 different places to get it filled. Compounding affords me a unique thing to practice."
Equipment in King's compounding room includes an ointment mill from Germany and a capsule machine that enables him to fill 100 capsules in about 15 minutes. He's often asked to prepare medications that are no longer being produced, he said.
"We have routines that we go through to check and double-check so that the finished product is what we want," he said. "It takes time and takes concentration. I don't need the phone ringing, or I don't need to talk to some insurance company."
Changes in profession
King, 63, and a 1963 Kansas University graduate, shared stories from his professional career last week during a presentation on Civil War medicine at Watkins Community Museum of History. He demonstrated how to make pills, shared stories of Lawrence pharmacies in the 1850s and 1860s and showed memorabilia he has collected during his career.
"I have come to the conclusion that many of the things they were using then we still use every day," King said. "We have this misconception that new is better and improved is better. Morphine was used to a great extent. There's still not a better pain reliever than morphine."
While some things in his business have remained the same through the years, King has noticed several changes in his profession. Communication between pharmacists and patients, and more merchandising are a couple of the transformations.
"When I first started, the patient would ask us what the medicine was for, and our standard answer was, 'This is medicine used for a variety of purposes,'" he said. "'If you have any questions, you ask your physician.' Pharmacists were prohibited from talking to the patients about the medicine, what it was, side effects. We've come 180 degrees from that."
In his first years as a pharmacist, companies seldom promoted drugs. That's changed, too.
"We had some samples when I started," Newton said. "So many of the drugs today are prescribed merely based upon the fact that the patient is given a sample. They tolerated that sample, and that's the drug they're prescribed as opposed to the physician determining what might be the best medicine to the individual. The media's been a big influence. All you have to say is, 'the purple pill," and everyone knows what it is. It's Nexium (for heartburn). We're bombarded with that."
'Up for the challenge'
Nan Rolfs, a bookkeeper and pharmacy technician at King Pharmacy, has worked for King about eight years. She said King thrived on concocting medications.
"We are a compounding pharmacy," Rolfs said. "Whatever people need him to make, he'll make it. If something is commercially not available, a doctor calls him up to see if he can make it. He's up for the challenge. This is his life. He really enjoys doing it."
King, who grew up in Luray in Russell County, came to KU in 1958 on a football scholarship. He opened his first pharmacy in 1976 at 944 Ky. He moved to the Medical Plaza in 1980. Besides pharmacy, he's been involved in medical equipment and oxygen therapies.
"We even do a lot of things for animals," King said. "In veterinary medicine, 50 percent of the medicine is in human dosage forms. It's more popular to make a dosage form for humans than it is for animals."
Vernon Branson, a retired pediatrician in Lawrence, has known King for 20 years. He's well aware of his compounding skills.
"There are certain things that he can compound that others can not," Branson said. "He just doesn't count pills."
Like many pharmacists, King has been taken aback by recent ethical scandals in his profession. Robert Courtney, a Kansas City, Mo., pharmacist, was sentenced last year to 30 years in prison for diluting potentially life-saving drugs.
"It brought tears to all of our eyes," said King, while pointing to his pharmacy license on his office wall. "I went to pharmacy school. I passed a test put up by the State Board of Pharmacy. The School of Pharmacy didn't give me my license. The state board didn't give me my license. The people in the state of Kansas gave me that license. They entrusted me by giving me that license to do certain things under moral guidelines. That was a gift to me. The gift I give back to the public is to do what is right for them."