The progress of medicine and the growth of Besse Medical

Besse Medical was founded in 1948 as a family-owned retail pharmacy in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since our early days we have played a small but important part in the fight against lethal disease, particularly with our leading role distributing vaccines across the country.


Early days at Besse Medical

Photo shows Helen and Ed Besse, founders of Besse Pharmacy, with Ed Jr at the new pharmacy’s soda fountain.

In this year Thomas Weller first isolated the varicella-zoster virus from cases of chickenpox and shingles. Weller was a joint recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine the following year. However, the first chickenpox and shingles vaccines weren’t licensed until 1995 and 2006 respectively. Both are available through Besse Medical, as is the newer MMRV vaccine.

Also in 1953, Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine and Watson and Crick determined the double helix structure of DNA. These events — among others — lead many to call 1953 a true annus mirabilis for science.


Credit: CDC Public Health Image Library
Detail from a CDC poster featuring the ‘Wellbee’, depicted here encouraging the public to receive an oral polio vaccine. Credit: CDC Public Health Image Library.

After extensive trials, Jonas Salk’s injected polio vaccine was licensed for use in 1955. The same decade, Albert Sabin developed the first oral vaccine to fight polio. After testing overseas, it was trialed in the US with a series of ‘Sabin Sundays’, when millions of families visited hospitals, schools and churches to receive the sugar cube vaccine.

Besse Medical was the first American distributor to purchase the Sabin Trivalent Oral Polio Vaccine in 1962. We also purchased the final batch of Sabin Polio in 2000.

Albert Sabin did much of his polio vaccine research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, near the current Besse Medical offices. The dedication and skill of medical professionals like Salk and Sabin and many more have brought us close to the elimination of polio worldwide.


Credit: Library of Congress

WPA Federal Art Project poster promoting regular medical checkups for prevention of tuberculosis. Credit: Library of Congress.

Modern tuberculosis control was ushered in at the Arden House Conference in 1959. The conference called for “eliminating tuberculosis as a public health problem” and recommended a program to treat all known cases of tuberculosis to prevent spread of the disease.

This followed breakthroughs in drug development, in particular the launch of isoniazid in 1952 — still today a simple and cost effective treatment used worldwide to fight TB.



The second location for Besse Pharmacy

The second business location for Besse Pharmacy in Cincinnati, across the street from the original location. The Besse family lived in the small apartment above the store.


Detail from American Red Cross World War I poster ‘The Public Health Nurse’. Credit: National Library of Medicine and American Red Cross.

When President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Nurse Training Act of 1964 into law, he transformed the profession and helped it become the highly specialized, highly skilled field it is today. The act authorized grants to build nursing schools, released funds for nursing education, expanded an existing program of advanced training, and established a loan program for student nurses to undertake professional training.

Interest in nursing as a profession leapt up and the increased demand led to the foundation of new nursing graduate schools across the country. At Besse Medical, we appreciated all that nurses do for the health and well-being of the nation.


Credit: CDC Public Health Image Library

A line of people awaiting flu vaccination in the 1976 Swine Flu outbreak. By the early 1990s, Besse Medical was thought to be supplying one in seven private sector flu vaccines in the USA. Credit: CDC Public Health Image Library.

The Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968-69 killed between one and four million people worldwide, and an estimated 33,800 people in the USA.

Many pharmacists of the time will report that December 1968 was the busiest month in their careers. It was a major emergency for suppliers of the flu vaccine, not least Besse. We filled four times as many prescriptions as usual, but supply could not meet demand. The Besse family worked from 6am to 2am, with physicians calling in prescriptions around the clock, not just for flu vaccine but for any product — prescription or over the counter — that would lower the added risk of pneumonia.

Due in no small part to the efforts of the medical industry, Hong Kong flu caused fewer deaths in the United States than the earlier flu pandemics of the twentieth century.

By the early 1990s, Besse Medical was thought to be supplying one in seven private sector flu vaccines in the USA.

Late 60s

Credit: Library of Congress

Chicago Department of Health smallpox vaccination poster. Credit: Library of Congress.

At the height of the Vietnam War we received a call from Ireland Army Hospital, Fort Knox, Kentucky. They were urgently calling pharmacies seeking live smallpox vaccine to administer to a general before he flew out to Vietnam.

Bob Besse located the vaccine at our wholesaler in downtown Cincinnati, packaged it up with dry ice in a styrofoam container and sent it airmail for next-day delivery. It made it on time, much to the delight of the hospital. They were so pleased they spread the word among other military bases, beginning a fruitful relationship between Besse Medical and the armed forces.

Every day Besse Medical still tries to delight our customers, building partnerships by going beyond expectations.


The second Besse Pharmacy satellite location

Ed Besse Jr., working as a pharmacist at a second satellite location, Besse Pharmacy Apothecary #2.

This year saw the introduction of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR).

Maurice Hilleman, developer of the MMR vaccine, explained the impact: “These diseases have essentially disappeared [from the United States] except for reintroduction from the outside or an occasional person who ... has a failure of immunization. These are no longer clinically important diseases.”

The MMRV vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) was approved for use in the United States in 2005.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate their Vaccines for Children program prevented 732,000 deaths and more than 21 million hospitalizations in the twenty years after its launch in 1994.


Our award from Pfizer

We celebrate a major milestone by filling our one-millionth prescription in the days before computers and label printers. The Besse family were honored to accept awards from Pfizer (above), Abbott Laboratories and Eli Lilly. We filled our two-millionth prescription twelve years later.

Today Besse Medical supplies hundreds of different specialty pharmaceuticals to tens of thousands of customers across the United States.


External shot of the Besse Pharmacy, late 70s

Besse Pharmacy gets a facelift and an addition to keep up with expanding operations. The savings and loan next door is purchased with the additional space being used as a physician office, and later as the home of Besse Home Health Care.

The 1970s saw significant advances in the urology field, with new prostate cancer screening regimens introduced, the application of brachytherapy to shrink prostate tumors, and the  rst use of alpha blockers to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Today Besse Medical is one of the largest distributors to urology practices treating diseases of the prostate.


Credit: US Army photo by Patricia Deal, CRDAMC Public Affairs.

Photo shows a soldier preparing to receive vaccinations in the medical center at Fort Hood. Credit: US Army photo by Patricia Deal, CRDAMC Public Affairs.

Over the years, Besse Medical Supply has built on its strong reputation as a distributor to physicians, including those serving our military.

One quiet Saturday morning in 1995 a call came in from Fort Hood, Texas. They urgently required two thousand doses of Hepatitis A vaccine for troops due to be deployed that evening. Employees came in over the weekend and drove the cases to Cincinnati airport. They got to the fort by 5pm that day — delighting our customer and the manufacturer.

This illustrates our core commitment to customer care but also shows how our business changed as we grew. By the 1990s it was clear that we needed to concentrate on the distribution side of our business, which had been growing at a dizzying rate.


The team at Besse Medical

The pharmaceuticals we supply and the solutions we offer go way beyond vaccinations, vital as they are.

The values established early in Besse Medical’s history direct everything we do today. Like the Besse grandparents whose entrepreneurial spirit set the company in motion nearly 70 years ago, today’s Besse leadership is always anticipating ways to help our customers. We encourage a culture driven by a keen understanding of medical practices, ensuring each request, large or small, is addressed with diligence worthy of patient care services.

By excelling at supply chain integrity, market knowledge and practice technology, we’ve built a foundation that prepares us to deal with external challenges and find ingenious solutions to serve customers now, and in the years to come.


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