Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. '50, MS '52
The Renaissance Pharmacist
He may be best known as the founder of the much-imitated Wine of the Month Club, but Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. ’50, MS ’52 is also a successful pharmacist who ran the first drugstore on the USC campus and discovered domestic plant sources of an antidote to nerve gas.
Kalemkiarian, who turns 84 in October, is the son of refugees who fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey early last century. He grew up in Egypt, became fluent in five languages and studied pharmacognosy (the science of plant-based medicine) at Cairo University. Motivated by political unrest in Egypt and encouraged by an aunt who lived in Los Angeles, he came to Southern California in 1949 and pursued both a bachelor’s and a master’s in pharmacy at USC.
Kalemkiarian researched two southwestern plants — Datura discolor and Datura meteloides — for his thesis. During those days of the Cold War, he made a hot discovery: Both plants, more commonly known as jimson weed, contained atropine and hyoscyamine, the only known antidotes at the time to deadly nerve gas.
After completing his master’s degree in 1952, he stayed on as a lecturer and was soon chosen to manage USC’s very first pharmacy — or dispensary, as it was then called. USC’s primary reason for establishing the dispensary was to give pharmacy students the opportunity to fulfill their required 1,900 hours of retail pharmacy experience, Kalemkiarian says.
Alvah G. Hall, then dean of the pharmacy school, charged him with opening the dispensary within 90 days. “Within 60 days, I had solicited $18,000 of inventory from pharmaceutical companies at no cost to the university — a very good number in those days,” says Kalemkiarian, adding that managing the pharmacy and training its student workers al- lowed him to stay on campus and continue teaching.
Kalemkiarian left USC in 1955 to open his own pharmacy and eventually expanded to five before retiring from the business in the early 1980s.
He acknowledges a debt of gratitude to USC and in particular to Hall. “He was a wonderful man and opened many doors for me. I owe a lot to ’SC.”
It was in 1957 that Kalemkiarian’s lifelong passion for wine was ignited. He read that, at a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, President Eisenhower served a Charles Krug 1953 Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection. Curious, he bought a bottle of the Napa Valley wine — and loved it.
Thereafter, he immersed himself in oenology. “I became a knowledgeable critic of wine,” he says. In 1971, he bought a liquor store next door to his Palos Verdes pharmacy and found himself frequently beckoned by customers seeking advice on wine. But the pharmacist could not be in two places at once. His solution? “I would pick two wines — one red and one white — each month and feature them as having my stamp of approval.” The popularity of his monthly selections inspired him to found the Wine of the Month Club, which he describes as the oldest mail-order wine club in the United States, in 1972. The company, now operated by his son, Paul Kalemkiarian Jr. ’81, is also the administrator of the Trojan Wine Society.
Kalemkiarian is the first of 11 Trojans in his family, but his wife, Rosemarie, is not among them. “Unfortunately, she’s a Bruin,” he jokes. Miraculously, they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year.