5 Pharmacist Facts About Author O. Henry

February 4, 2015
Meghan Ross, Associate Editor

Author William Sydney Porter's first job as a pharmacist aided him in several ways over his lifetime.

Author William Sydney Porter’s first job as a pharmacist aided him in several ways over his lifetime.

Porter, who used the pen name O. Henry, authored famous short stories such as “The Gift of the Magi,” which is about a young couple tasked with buying each other secret Christmas gifts with little money.

Porter’s experience as a pharmacist greatly benefited him down the road as he transitioned from the medical field to the literary world.

Here are 5 facts about the pharmacist who used creative plot twists in his writings.

1. Porter worked for several years as a pharmacist at his uncle’s store.

Porter’s mother and brother died of tuberculosis early into his life, and his father, a physician, was somewhat absent due to drinking problems and obsession with inventions, according to NorthCarolinaHistory.org. In 1879, Porter started an apprenticeship at the W.C. Porter Company, a North Carolina drugstore owned by his uncle. He worked at the pharmacy for several years and became a licensed pharmacist at age 18.

2. During his time working as a pharmacist, Porter fell in love with Sara Lindsey Coleman, who would later become his wife.

Porter was 19 years old when he met and fell in love with Sara Lindsey Coleman, who was nicknamed Sall. He was too nervous to ask her out on a date, though, and he left North Carolina in 1881 for Texas without getting a chance to get to know her better. Fast-forward to 1907, after his first wife had died, and Porter reconnected with Coleman. They got married, but just 2 years later, Porter’s alcoholism drove Coleman to leave him, according to Portitute.org.

3. Porter landed in jail for embezzlement, but his pharmacy skills came in handy behind bars.

With good behavior, Porter served 3 years of a 5-year prison sentence for embezzlement while he worked as a bank teller. He was 35 years old when he served time at Ohio Penitentiary, which was known for being a harsh prison. However, Porter was able to serve in the prison’s pharmacy. He was even given special treatment because of his skills; he was afforded more free time than the other prisoners, according to NorthCarolinaHistory.org. He spent this free time writing some of his most famous short stories.

4. Porter’s pen name may reference a French pharmacist.

Porter gave many explanations as to how he came up with O. Henry as his pen name, including an anecdote about him always calling for his family cat with “Oh, Henry!” However, another possible explanation is that Porter was inspired by a French pharmacist named Eteinne-Ossian Henry. This pharmacist was found in the US Dispensatory, a guidebook for those in the medical field that Porter used while working in the prison pharmacy.

5. Porter died of diabetes on June 5, 1910, and his body was taken back to North Carolina.

The pharmacist-turned-writer moved to New York near the end of his life and died on June 5, 1910, from complications due to diabetes and other illnesses. Coleman took his body back to Asheville, North Carolina, which is where they had spent their lives together while married. He is buried in the historic Riverside Cemetery, where fellow writer Thomas Wolfe is also buried, according to NorthCarolinaHistory.org.