Pharmacy scholarship established to honor alumni couple helps others pursue their dreams

Jennifer Eburg

3 min read

When James O’Brien, Jr. ’89 MD and his siblings Tom O’Brien, Beth Massey, and Debbie O’Brien were thinking about ways they could honor their parents, establishing a scholarship at UConn was a natural move. Not only were their parents—Joan McMullen O’Brien ’54 (PHARM) and the late James O’Brien, Sr. ’52 (PHARM), ’55 MS, ’57 Ph.D.—both alumni, but they even met while attending UConn.

Joan grew up in Moodus, Connecticut, where her father owned a pharmacy. She decided to follow in his footsteps and enrolled in UConn’s pharmacy program, one of just six female students in her class. When Joan was in her sophomore year, she met Jim, Sr. at a party at the dormitory that housed three pharmacy fraternities. Jim, then a senior, was a member of Kappa Psi. They started dating the following year.

After graduating from UConn in 1954, Joan began working in her father’s pharmacy. She and Jim married in 1955, while he was attending graduate school.

“Jim finished his master’s degree and began working on his Ph.D.,” Joan says. “During this time, I worked for my father and lived in Moodus. Jim lived on campus and spent weekends with me in Moodus until he graduated.”

For Jim, Sr., being able to attend UConn was life changing. He was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, where his mother worked as a maid and his father as a trolley driver. He worked in a pharmacy when he was younger, which sparked his interest in the field, and he attended UConn thanks to scholarship support.

“Neither of my father’s parents had an education beyond elementary school. My father experienced firsthand the opportunities that become available with education,” says Jim, Jr. “He always emphasized the importance of education.”

After Jim, Sr. earned his Ph.D., he worked in the pharmacology department at the University of Vermont from January through September of 1957. Joan worked at a nearby pharmacy during this time, supporting her husband while he attended medical school. Jim graduated in 1961, then began his residency in internal medicine at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, bringing the family back to Connecticut.

“I think Jim always planned to go to medical school, but he was also very interested in pharmacy,” Joan says of her husband’s decision to pursue a medical degree after already obtaining a Ph.D. in pharmacology.

Having a medical degree as well as a Ph.D. in pharmacology at a time when drug overdoses were becoming more prevalent meant that Jim, Sr. was well equipped for a career focused on battling addiction issues. He served as clinical pharmacologist in the Department of Medicine, medical director of the Intensive Care Unit, and director of the Methadone Detoxification Program at St. Francis; medical director of the Combined Hospital Alcoholism Program in Hartford; assistant professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine; and medical director of the Alcohol Treatment Center at UConn John Dempsey Hospital. He was also a commissioner of pharmacy for the State of Connecticut and the medical director of the Connecticut Poison Control Center.

Jim, Jr. says that being able to follow his passions meant a lot to his dad.

“It meant so much to him to be able to pursue the field he loved, and UConn made that all possible.”

“As kids, we heard about pharmacy and pharmacology all the time,” he says. “It meant so much to him to be able to pursue the field he loved, and UConn made that all possible.”

UConn shaped Jim, Jr.’s life as well. He remembers his time in medical school fondly, especially the strong camaraderie among classmates and the supportive faculty.

“My education at UConn allowed me to pursue the career I dreamt of,” says Jim, who works as a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon at Children’s Mercy Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri.

In recognition of Jim’s own experience at UConn, and as a way to honor their parents, Jim, Tom, Beth, and Debbie established the Dr. James E. O’Brien ’52, ’55, ’57 and Joan McMullen O’Brien ’54 Scholarship in Pharmacy, which provides support for undergraduate and graduate pharmacy students.

“Education was so important to both of our parents, and UConn played an important role in their lives,” he says. “When it came time to do something to honor our mom and dad, it was natural to do something in education and at UConn. It took just minutes to figure that out.”

Jim hopes that the scholarship will enable other students to have the type of life-changing experience his parents did.

“I hope that this will do the same thing for other students that it did for my mom and dad, especially for my father,” he says. “Having the ability to go to UConn, having a scholarship at that time, changed my father’s life. I hope someone can benefit in a similar fashion and that this will allow them to also pursue their dream.”

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