Joy Plein, ’51, ’57, was a champion of the elderly

Joy B. Plein, a champion of elderly patients, dedicated her long life to researching, teaching and sponsoring pharmaceutical research at the University of Washington. The driving force for the geriatric component of the School of Pharmacy curriculum, she helped build the UW’s Clinical Pharmacy program and sent UW pharmacists into the community to broaden the possibilities of what pharmacy could be, connecting the field to nursing, medicine, dentistry, and social work.

“She lifted up the profession,” says Karan N. Dawson, a close friend and colleague in the School of Pharmacy. Plein’s half-century of academic service was matched only by her monetary gifts to the University, which totaled $3.5 million in donations alongside husband Elmer Plein, a UW professor who died in 1994. The Pleins were a force to be reckoned with in the School of Pharmacy, conducting research together and team-teaching a course.

Beth Devine, a professor at the CHOICE Institute in the School of Pharmacy, was one of her close friends. She spoke at Plein’s graveside service, where she read a list of Plein’s noteworthy qualities, pausing after each one to let family and friends remember the qualities from their own perspective. Kind and compassionate. Thoughtful and caring. Brave, cheerful and persevering in the face of adversity. Tenacious. Generous of spirit in every sense of the word. Loyal Husky football fan!

As a postdoc in the department in 1999, Devine found out she lived around the corner from Plein. That set them up for a wonderful, multidimensional relationship: friends, colleagues, neighbors. It’s a relationship that Devine still has. “I feel like I haven’t lost her,” she says. “She continues to be a role model in so many profound ways. She lives on in my heart.”

Before she was Joy B. Plein, she was Ellen Joy Bickmore—born in Utah and raised in Idaho. Dawson points out that in Greek, Ellen means “light,” and we all know what Joy means. “I think she lived up to both of her names,” Dawson says.

To Marilyn (Bohler) Sparks, she was Aunt Joy. After aging out of her California foster care home the day after graduating high school, Sparks didn’t have the means to live on her own. She needed a lifeline. Aunt Joy was one of the people who stepped in, albeit from 1,200 miles away. She helped by paying half of her rent so Sparks could afford to work part time so she could go to college. Aunt Joy was always a special person in Marilyn’s life. They wrote letters back and forth throughout her teenage years and on into adulthood, and Aunt Joy sent a special pair of earrings to her as a gift when she graduated with her AA, even though she wasn’t able to attend her graduation. “I have gradually come to realize that my Aunt Joy is a bit of a scientific celebrity. It’s like having Clark Kent in your family, and going your whole life not knowing he is Superman.”

As Plein entered her 90s, Sparks found comfort in knowing how supportive Dawson had become to her aunt. The colleagues grew so close that Dawson was with Plein when she died in February. “She told me that she wasn’t afraid, and that she was ready,” Dawson says. “I think she told me that because she didn’t want me to worry. And I think that’s what Joy did: She was always thinking about the other person, and how she could help them—even at the end of her life.”

Reflections from a student

Melissa Yuen, UWSOP ’18:

The first time I met with Dr. Joy Plein (one-on-one) to plan an ASCP event, I admittedly felt nervous. She was THE Dr. Joy Plein after all, and I was a second year pharmacy student at the time, still figuring out things. However, any worries I had were immediately put to rest with her gentle, steadfast nature. Little did I know that this encounter would unexpectedly turn into a mentorship. Over the course of that year, I met up with her a few other times to discuss the event. Initially, I thought these meetings would be strictly business but I appreciated that she took the time and effort to get to know me. She was a keen listener, sincerely listening to my responses in a way that made me feel heard.

She always genuinely believed in me, and for that I am forever thankful for. Professionally she is well known for her work ethic and devotion to pharmacy, nevertheless it was her compassion that left a deep impression on me. In light of all the longstanding gender, racial, and social issues that were brought to the forefront recently, I can’t help but wonder about all the adversities she must have faced over the course of her lifetime. I imagine all the professional and personal challenges she must have had to overcome, and that thought alone inspires me so deeply. I digress, but only because I am in awe of the inspiring life she led and am curious about the things that shaped her into the Dr. Plein I knew.

For the short period of time I knew her, Dr. Plein was always full of life, living each day with fervor and purpose. She wasn’t defined by her age, transcending societal labels and expectations. Now when I remember her, I think of her as the devoted mentor, who also felt like a supportive friend. Dr. Joy Plein inspires me to live with intent, so that I can best serve those around me and to simply enjoy this one life.