Posted by: Bystander PJ23 FEB 2012
I learnt recently that a literary figure whose works I enjoy began his career as a pharmacist.
William Sydney Porter, the son of a physician, was born in 1862 in North Carolina. In 1879, after completing his high school education, he began working in his uncle’s pharmacy and two years later, aged only 19, he gained his pharmacist’s licence.
He moved to Texas and settled in Austin, where he worked as a pharmacist before trying various other jobs. He also began to write.
In 1894, while employed by an Austin bank, he was accused of stealing $4,000. The bank sacked him but took no other action, and he moved to Houston to work as a newspaper columnist. But then the bank underwent a federal audit, and the auditors found discrepancies. They obtained a federal indictment against Porter, who was arrested and charged with embezzlement, which he denied. He skipped bail and fled to Honduras, where he continued to write (notably coining the term “banana republic” in one of his stories). But on learning that his wife was dying of tuberculosis, Porter returned to the US and surrendered to the court. He was found guilty and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
Porter served his time in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, and worked in the prison hospital as the night pharmacist. This allowed him to sleep in his own room in the prison wing rather than in a cell block. He spent his free time writing, and had 14 short stories published under various pseudonyms.
When released after three years for good behaviour, Porter permanently adopted one of those noms de plume — O. Henry. It has been suggested that the name was formed from pairs of letters taken from “Ohio Penitentiary”.
He moved to New York City, and over the next few years had a further 381 short stories published, a number of which include references to pharmacy.
He became one of the most celebrated short story writers, known for wit, wordplay and surprise endings. But he developed health problems, including alcoholism, and died on 5 June 1910, aged only 47.