Bruce Johnson (BScPH’74): Prescription for success
By Mark Campbell
Bruce Johnson (BScPH’74) isn’t quite sure how many young people he’s inspired to become pharmacists over the past 40 years. But one person who followed in his footsteps holds a special place in his heart. “My oldest daughter, Vanessa (BScPH’10),” says Johnson. “I think this is a great profession. Every day, you get to help others, and you go home with a sense of satisfaction that you’ve done something important, that you made a difference. That’s why I nudged her into doing it.”
Johnson hasn’t just made a difference as a pharmacist and role model; he’s made history. When he graduated from Dalhousie’s School of Pharmacy in 1974, he became the province’s first black pharmacist, and forever changed the face of the profession. But he was only getting started. Since then, the lifelong Yarmouth resident has devoted himself to promoting diversity in his chosen field, in Nova Scotia’s workforce and in the community.
“Young people need to see people of all races involved in the workplace,” he says. “We have a very diverse culture out there, so we should have a wide range of people from all walks of life in different positions.”
Although he has long promoted pharmacy as a career option through schools and organizations such as the Black Business Initiative, Johnson says his goal is a bit broader than that. “My message has always been ‘Stay in school,” he explains. “If you go on to pharmacy, that’s great, but if not, it doesn’t matter. The key is to get a good education. That’s more important [than a particular career path].”
Johnson did not set out to become a pharmacist, noting that it was the influence of several Dalhousie alumni, including John Leo Mooney (BScPH’22), his son, Bill (BScPH’56), and Ray MacMillan (BScPH’60) who set him on his academic and career path. “Bill and his wife, Aurel, encouraged me to apply to the Yarmouth Hospital pharmacy for a summer position in 1969. Ray was the pharmacist there, so I learned a lot from him and discovered that I really enjoyed the work. Then Bill’s brother, Fraser (BScPH’52), hired me for afterschool work, so their guidance and support helped to pave the way for me.”
In fall 1970, Johnson entered the School of Pharmacy and found it to be a very positive experience. “I enjoyed the professors at Dalhousie. They all accepted me, but more than that, they all wanted me to do well. It never bothered me to be the only person of colour. I was used to that, so I had the determination to achieve my goal.”
Johnson subsequently devoted himself to helping others do the same, not just by advocating education and pharmacy, but also as a committee member of the Black Employment Resource Centre in Yarmouth, which he helped launch in 1997. “Before that, if you went to Manpower, you might see one visible minority,” says Johnson. “We had black career workers, black managers and black assistants, so when you came in and looked for employment, you’d see people you would recognize, and that would make you feel comfortable.”
Johnson has become pretty recognizable himself around his community through his charitable and volunteer work. He serves as a basketball coach and helps raise funds for recreational facilities on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club in Yarmouth. He’s a member of the Yarmouth Refugee Support Group committee, which has helped resettle one Syrian family in the region and is working to bring in more. And he serves on a committee that is working to establish a dedicated hospice facility for Yarmouth.
All of that activity is impressive when you consider that Johnson is also a partner in City Drug Store, where he has been a constant presence for more than 40 years. It’s a milestone that has him thinking of what comes next. “I’m looking forward to retirement,” he admits. “Not to disappear, but to do other things. I’m still going to be busy in the community, maybe even busier.”
Besides, there is another generation of young black Nova Scotians to encourage and inspire, and maybe one beyond that. “I’m hoping, when my daughter starts a family, we might encourage her children to go into pharmacy, too. That would be a nice legacy.”