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Ernst Walter Stieb 1929-2015

Preeminent pharmacy historian Ernst Stieb, PhD, passed away on February 2, 2015, in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Stieb’s seminal text, Drug Adulteration: Detection and Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain (University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), explored the growth of pharmacognosy as a discipline and its relationship with drug adulteration, tracing the history of herb adulteration through more than two millennia, as well as the evolution of analytical techniques, social change, and legislative actions related thereto.

Dr. Stieb, a native of Windsor, Ontario, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmacy from the Ontario College of Pharmacists and the University of Toronto, respectively; he completed his doctorate in history of pharmacy from the University of Wisconsin in 1959. In time, his major field of study — the adulteration of drugs (including many plant drugs) — became his doctoral thesis, which formed the basis for Drug Adulteration. He wrote Drug Adulteration in collaboration with his mentor Glenn Sonnedecker, PhD, one of America’s key leaders in the area of pharmacy history.

After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Stieb taught history of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Pharmacy. He also continued as secretary of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP) and contributing editor of the Institute’s publication, Pharmacy in History, which he had held since 1957. He served the University and AIHP until 1967, after which he joined the pharmacy faculty at the University of Toronto, assuming the title “Historian of Pharmacy.” At Toronto, Dr. Stieb taught, pursued his research, and served in several administrative positions, including assistant dean from 1975-1978, associate dean from 1978-1994, and interim dean from 1993-1994. These roles, according to the tribute posted by the University, “allowed Professor Stieb to shape the course of pharmacy education in Canada and influence generations of pharmacy students.”1

The impact of Drug Adulteration was recognized in academic circles at the time of publishing, and its influence continues today. A review of the text in the journal Medical History called it “[A] pioneering achievement … [of] inestimable value, a value which is enhanced with a particularly comprehensive bibliography … which, like the text, can only occasionally be faulted or, in questions of interpretation, queried.”2 Steven Foster, a noted botanist, author, and botanical photographer who has used Dr. Stieb’s work as a reference on many occasions, proclaims that it is “one of the most important historical works on medicinal plant adulteration” (email to M. Blumenthal, May 4, 2015).

The ever-looming specter of drug and food adulteration and the role of pharmacists in ensuring safe, effective medicines for their clients created a constantly evolving landscape to navigate. Dr. Stieb stayed active in the field throughout his career, preserving and passing down the history of his field for the betterment of his students and their livelihoods. His contributions to academia and the numerous organizations that he supported through membership and leadership stretch over decades. “From the time he entered the graduate program, Ernie held a teaching or research position,” said John Bachynsky, PhD, professor emeritus for the pharmacy faculty at the University of Alberta.3 “His advancement was based on his scholarly work, which included several books, many historical papers, consulting with a variety of historical and professional organizations and teaching the history of pharmacy.”

Dr. Stieb played a proactive role in his field, assuming a remarkable number of leadership positions. He served on many different committees during his tenure at the University of Toronto, as well as on behalf of the Association of Faculties of Pharmacy of Canada (AFPC), co-editing the history of AFPC along with Bernard Riedel, PhD. According to Professor Riedel, Dr. Stieb “has been most active and most influential on the nature of the document which this has become. [He was] a true historian with appreciation for the scientific significance of proper documentation, and of the importance of accurate reporting of facts and details.”3

Dr. Stieb was also an active member of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, AFPC’s American equivalent. He helped found the Canadian Academy of the History of Pharmacy in 1968; he also served as curator of the Niagara Apothecary Museum, on the Canadian Council on Continuing Education in Pharmacy, as a board member and committee member with the Canadian Foundation for Pharmacy, in administrative capacities for the Canadian Hospital Pharmacy Residency Board, and as a consultant and member of the editorial advisory board of the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association (now the Canadian Pharmacists Association).

Outside of his lifelong passion for history and teaching, Dr. Stieb enjoyed traveling, photography, reading, painting and music, and spending time with family, friends, and pets. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Cathy; his sister, Helen; his children, Sue and Dave; and five grandchildren. A memorial celebrating Dr. Stieb’s life was held on February 7, 2015, in Oakville, Ontario.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Dr. John Bachynsky for his detailed information about Dr. Stieb’s lengthy career.

—Hannah Bauman


  1. Remembering Professor Emeritus Ernst Stieb. University of Toronto – Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy website. Available at: Accessed June 18, 2015.
  2. Crellin JK. Drug adulteration, detection and control in nineteenth-century Britain. Med Hist. 1968;12(2):212-213.
  3. Bachynsky J. History of Pharmacy and Prof. Ernst Stieb, 1929-2015: A Personal Look at His Contribution to the Study of the History of Pharmacy. Talk presented at the Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Academy of the History of Pharmacy. May 30, 2015; Ottawa, Ontario.