The pharmacist who changed Christmas

After his release from prison William began publishing yearly collections of his short stories. People enjoyed his tales because they dealt with common people in ordinary circumstances but with endings that were unexpected and surprising. Whether humorous or tragic, his tales taught lessons about life in a way that left his readers pondering their own responses to life’s ups and downs.

books lined up with titles of classic novels

From the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies vied to develop a safe and effective vaccine as people waited for what was thought to be a way “back to normal”.  At the same time, politicians vilified them for their high profits and patients resented exorbitant prices of prescription drugs.

A little over a century ago a pharmacist told a story that millions read and love today, a tale that taught us the true meaning of Christmas and giving.

William Sydney Porter was born on (ironically) September 11, 1862. His father Algernon Sidney Porter was a medical doctor. When William was 3 years old, his mother died of “consumption (an old term for tuberculosis).

He grew up in Greensboro North Carolina where he clerked for his uncle’s pharmacy Morley Drug Store. At 19 years of age he earned a pharmacy license (although it apparently required no special education or training.)

William developed a chronic cough which caught the attention of Dr. James Hall. He invited William to go with him to Texas to visit his son’s ranch, thinking this would help resolve the cough. William recovered and worked on the ranch for 2 years.

William married a young woman, Athol and they had two children-a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter Margaret. With a family he needed a reliable source of income so he took a job as a teller at National Bank of Austin. This proved to be a decision that would change the course of their lives.

In addition to his bank job, William started a newspaper called The Rolling Stone .(Apparently the current magazine of the same name is not related. ) When it went bankrupt, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Post.

Unfortunately some accounting discrepancies at the bank led to accusations of embezzlement against William . Although the charge was likely unjustified, fearing prosecution, he fled Texas, first to Louisiana, and then to Guatemala, without his wife and child.

In his absence, Athol contracted tuberculosis which spun out of control. He returned to Texas care for her, but upon her death in 1897 he was arrested and convicted of embezzlement; he served 5 years in a federal prison and upon release moved to New York City.

His time in prison was not wasted. As a licensed pharmacist, he was allowed to work as a druggist in the prison hospital, enjoying a better quality of life than most prisoners. Working the night shift, gave him time to pursue his writing talent. Under a pen name (since he didn’t want to reveal he was an inmate), he began writing and publishing short stories.

After his release from prison William began publishing yearly collections of his short stories. People enjoyed his tales because they dealt with common people in ordinary circumstances but with endings that were unexpected and surprising. Whether humorous or tragic, his tales taught lessons about life in a way that left his readers pondering their own responses to life’s ups and downs.

In 1906 the collection was called The Four Million and contained a story that became his most read and beloved of all. Like in many of his stories, he used irony to create an unexpected ending to what would otherwise have been a sweet but predictable love story.

His writing failures and successes came with a price; his alcohol use turned into an addiction. After writing more than 600 stories,William Sydney Porter died of alcoholic liver cirrhosis at 48 years old, in 1910.

So even though William died 110 years ago, he is still very much alive through the words he wrote. He even has a Facebook page. And the man who once published a magazine has one named after him.

You’ve probably guessed this famous writer’s name, that is his pen name- William Sydney Porter became O. Henry.

The most common purpose of irony is to create humor and/or point out the absurdity of life… life has a way of contradicting our expectations, often in painful ways.

Irony generally makes us laugh, even when the circumstances are tragic. We laugh not because the situations were tragic, but because they violate our expectations.

The contrast between people’s expectations and the reality of the situations is not only funny, but also meaningful because it calls our attention to how wrong human beings can be.

Irony is best when it points us towards deeper meanings of a situation.

The secret life of WSP, cherrymag.com

https://literaryterms.net/irony/

I compiled this brief biography of O. Henry from several different sources, all of which generally conveyed the same events and timeline, some adding details not mentioned in others. All can be easily found by a simple search. This was one of my favorite sources.

In my next post I’ll talk about those deeper meanings O. Henry wanted us to grasp.

Author: Aletha Cress Oglesby, M.D.

As a family physician, I explore the HEART of HEALTH in my work, recreation, community, and through writing. My blog, Watercress Words, informs and inspires us to live in health. I believe we can turn our health challenges into healthy opportunities. When we do, we can share the HEART of health with our families, communities, and the world. Come explore and share with me.

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