Gwendolyn Mary Wilson was born to Fannie Robinson Wilson and Dr. Cornelius Wilson in Dardanelle, Arkansas on December 8, 1907. Dr. Wilson moved the family to Des Moines, Iowa in August 1913 where he set up an office and continued with his medical practice. Dr. Wilson died in 1916. Fannie Wilson married Olin Cooper in 1937.
Gwendolyn Wilson attended Bryant Elementary School and West High School in Des Moines. Determined that her daughter get the best education possible, Fannie Wilson made arrangements for Gwendolyn to attend a special preparatory high school located on the campus of Rust College, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wilson graduated with honors in 1926 before returning to Iowa, where she was accepted to the College of Pharmacy at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. After attending the University of Iowa for a year, Wilson transferred to the Des Moines College of Pharmacy, which later became the Drake College of Pharmacy. When Wilson graduated with a pharmaceutical/chemist degree (Ph.C.) in 1930, she became the first black woman to obtain a pharmaceutical degree and to be officially registered as a pharmacist in the state of Iowa.
Although Wilson was highly qualified and certified by the state to practice pharmacy, she was unable to find work as a pharmacist. Wilson would later blame this on the economy during the Depression, labor legislation that restricted the number of hours women could work, and racism. Unable to find work in Iowa, Wilson returned to Holly Springs, Mississippi and taught seventh grade for a year before returning to Des Moines again. Wilson got a job waiting tables before being hired by Winnie (Mrs. N.E.) Coffin as a maid. In 1936, Wilson accompanied Coffin on a world tour to purchase artwork for the Des Moines Art Museum then under construction. The two women traveled extensively in China, Japan, Sumatra, Bali, Java, Singapore, and Australia. Their tour ended abruptly in August 1937 when Coffin died in Japan. Following Mrs. Coffin's death, Wilson returned to Des Moines where she married Lafe H. Fowler on January 19, 1938. They were divorced in 1946.
Gwendolyn Wilson Fowler finally obtained employment in her field in 1944 when she was hired by the State of Iowa Department of Health as a pharmacist's clerk. In 1950, Fowler took a position as a chemist in the Iowa State Department of Agriculture laboratory. As a temporary consultant on a special project, Fowler caught the attention of President Eisenhower's administration. Fowler became one of only nine women (and the only woman of color) to be selected for Foreign Service positions higher than secretary. In 1955, Fowler was assigned as a program analyst in Saigon, Vietnam where she was stationed for four years. After completing her Foreign Service assignment, Fowler returned to Des Moines and the Iowa State Department of Agriculture laboratory. In 1962, Fowler was hired by the Broadlawns Polk County Hospital as a staff pharmacist, a position she held until her retirement in 1974.
During her retirement, Fowler was active in volunteer organizations, including Wilkie House, the Red Cross, and the United Way. Fowler also served on the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) board of directors, the State Drug Abuse Council and the Des Moines Civic Music Board. Governor Robert Ray appointed Fowler to the Iowa Statewide Health Coordinating Council. Fowler was a lifetime member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was also a member of the Des Moines Sister City Commission, the Des Moines Women's Club, and the Drake University Alumni Association. In 1987, Fowler was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.
Fowler died in November 1997.
The Gwendolyn Wilson Fowler papers date from 1905 to 1996 and measure 5.5 linear feet. The papers are arranged in 8 series: Personal, Family, Employment, African-American Community, Community Work, Travel, Photographs and Artifacts.
The Personal series includes biographical information and financial papers pertaining to Fowler. It contains examples of the countless lists Fowler kept, particularly of her possessions that she collected during her global travels. This series contains papers pertaining to Fowler's induction into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, including her induction speech, and the nomination papers Fowler submitted in 1995 in her attempt to have Sue M. Wilson Brown inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. The series contains evidence of Fowler's fascination with astrology and psychics, through the many solicitations Fowler received and subscribed to in her later life. It also includes correspondence between Fowler and her mother, Fannie Wilson Cooper, from 1930-1979. This correspondence includes the time Fowler traveled around the world with Mrs. Winnie Coffin, and Fowler's years in Vietnam with the Foreign Service. Other correspondence included in the series consists of letters from Azalia Mitchell, Dr. Tom Scales and other notable members of Des Moines' African American community.
The Family series consists of papers relevant to Fowler's mother, Fannie Wilson Cooper; Fowler's father, Cornelius M. Wilson; and Fowler's stepfather, Olin Cooper. Fannie Wilson Cooper's papers include a sympathy card she received from the Des Moines Suffrage Club in 1916 when her husband, Dr. Cornelius M. Wilson died. Dr. Cornelius M. Wilson's papers include the Knights of Pythias financial card book for which he served as treasurer. There is also a letter explaining the Medical Protective Association that Dr. Wilson helped to create for his patients. Olin Cooper's papers consist of his funeral book and funeral expenses.
The Employment series covers Fowler's time in Vietnam as a program analyst with the Foreign Service and her experiences as a pharmacist. The Vietnam sub-series includes correspondence and newspaper articles regarding Fowler's appointment, as well as documents, a U.S. embassy phone directory, a list of personnel and payroll, and various project samples and proposals. The Pharmacy sub-series contains the 1929 Des Moines College of Pharmacy yearbook, papers pertaining to Fowler's employment at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, including personal comments regarding the racism she experienced, and recognition of Fowler's fiftieth anniversary as a licensed pharmacist in Iowa.
The African-American Community series consists primarily of papers Fowler wrote and saved regarding the African-American community. These papers include an original piece Fowler wrote, "Iowa's Minorites of 1900's-1930's," a copy of Mrs. S. Joe Brown's "History of Central Association of Colored Women," and Beatrice Noah's "The Life and Works of Mary B. Talbert." There is also a handwritten piece titled, "White Man's Burden" which may have been written by Fowler. The highlight of the African- American community papers is the collection of obituaries and funeral programs that Fowler saved between 1973 and 1995, representing the histories of individuals and the African American community in Des Moines. In addition, Fowler saved several newspaper articles regarding prominent African American men: Archie Alexander, Charles P. Howard Sr., Judge Luther T. Glanton and Clifford W. MacKay. Fowler's involvement with the African American community included her church activities, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), including her role as a charter member of the Junior NAACP, Wilkie House, Inc. and her support of African American men running for political office.
The Community Work series covers many aspects of Fowler's volunteer activities. Fowler was involved with several civic organizations: the Civic Music Association, the Des Moines Sister City Commission, the Des Moines Women's Club, the Questers, the Red Cross, the Statewide Health Coordination Council, the Substance Abuse Advisory Council, the United Way and the YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association).
The Travel series is dominated by the diary Fowler kept during her travels with Mrs. Winnie Coffin from 1936-1937. Diary entries provide clues to class and race differences during that time, as they were experienced and perceived by Fowler. The diary is also filled with the excitement and wonder of seeing foreign lands and cultures prior to the changes brought by World War II.
The Photographs series is an extensive collection of photographs, slides and postcards spanning Fowler's life. In addition to various photographs of Fowler, there are photographs of Fowler's mother Fannie Wilson Cooper, her father Cornelius M. Wilson, her step-father Olin Cooper, and her aunt Sarilda Phillips. Also included are photographs of the Scales, the Mitchells, Audra Alexander and the Trotters, who were prominent members of Des Moines' African American community and close friends of the Wilson Coopers. There are also several photographs Fowler took during her travels with Mrs. Winnie Coffin. Many of the general photographs record the social gatherings Fowler enjoyed with friends, at church, and with her various volunteer groups. Unfortunately the majority of these photographs are not identified. A large portion of the Photographs series covers Fowlers years as a program analyst in Vietnam. Most of the photographs in this sub-series cover social gatherings among the Foreign Service employees, the majority of which are not identified. There are some slides that depict more of the general surroundings in Vietnam, including Fowler's apartment and people working in the fields and in the market place. This sub-series also contains a photograph of Fowler meeting President Diem.
The Artifacts series consists of a single 1995 plaque recognizing Fowler's lifetime membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha.