Leopold Skulski – pharmacist and prime minister

The monthly journal “Czasopismo Aptekarskie” (“Pharmacy Journal”) has proclaimed 2017 as the Year of Leopold Skulski, in honour of the chemical engineer and pharmacist who served as Poland's prime minister and was murdered by the Soviets in 1940.

Every successive anniversary of Poland’s regained independence in 1918 prompts us to recall the individuals who made a permanent imprint on the difficult post-war years during which the II Republic of Poland was built. Amongst them was the pharmacist Leopold Skulski, the only representative of his profession to serve as a prime minister of reborn Poland, who also served as the mayor of Łódź.

During the 1920 Polish-Bolshevik war he served as Poland's interior minister. Apart from his political service, he was also involved in civic, economic, cultural and sporting activities. Extremely entrepreneurial in spirit and highly respected in the business world, he served on the board of directors of several enterprises.

Chemist's assistant

Only a narrow circle of historians has written and published accounts about Leopold Skulski. Knowledge about his work as a chemist is extremely limited, although he was one of the most outstanding politicians to have hailed from Zamość. Born in 1877 to an impoverished family of gentry intelligentsia, he studied pharmacy. His father was Adolf Skulski of the noble Rogala clan, and his mother Bronisława traced her ancestry to the Wołyń line of the Leliwa gentry.

In 1894, after four years of studying as a capable and diligent pupil, he graduated with honours from the junior secondary school in Zamość. (It wasn’t until 1901 that he passed his school-leaving exam at Lublin’s secondary school for boys.) Upon passing oral exams in Russian, Polish, Latin and German as well as getting the required grades in mathematics and legible writing skills, on 21st December that year he was granted the title of pharmacy assistant by the Medical Department of Lublin's Russian Occupation Authorities.

Unfortunately, for financial reasons his family was unable to provide funds for his higher education, so he began an apprenticeship under the pharmacist Mieczysław Czubaszek in Zamość. A year later, he transferred to the pharmacy of Wiktor Migurski in Krasnystaw, where he worked as a pharmacy trainee until 18th December 1897.

In January 1090, Skulski moved to Warsaw where he enrolled in the pharmacy course at the Medical Faculty of Imperial Warsaw University. He completed the course on 18th March that year, obtained the degree of pharmacy assistant and found employment at the pharmacy of Zdzisław Kłossowski, Master of Pharmacy, in Zamość. He worked there until November 1899, when he moved to the village of Dobrów in the former County of Będzin and started working for the pharmacist Żółczyński. He returned to Zamość on 1st July 1900, where he began his traineeship at the pharmacy of Karol Kłossowski. He left on 12th July 1902 to enrol in the Pharmacy Section of the Medical Faculty at Imperial Warsaw University. Between 1894 to 1901, Leopold Skulski had spent a total of six years and three months working as a pharmacy trainee and assistant.

Polish Pharmaceutical Society, Warsaw Student of pharmacy

A two-year pharmacy course ended with an examination (in areas such as mineralogy, botany, zoology, chemistry, phytotherapy, pharmacy, pharmacology and emergency first aid) as well as a requirement to attend lectures in pharmaceutical sciences at the Warsaw Pharmaceutical School of any of the medico-surgical academies or the university. Upon fulfilling

these requirements, on 31st October the pharmacy assistant Leopold Skulski obtained the title of pharmacist (the Warsaw University Council confirmed the diploma on 5th June 1903). In that same year, he began studying at the Chemistry Faculty of Imperial Warsaw University, where he was also active in student affairs as chairman of the board of the Warsaw University Students Fraternal Self-Help Circle.

In 1904, Skulski began studying at the Chemistry Faculty at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Germany, and two years later (in 1906) he received a diploma in chemical engineering. There too he became involved in social and political activities, being elected president of the Polish Academic Society, a fraternity of Polish students in Karlsruhe, which he represented at the 19th unification congress of Societies of Young Poles Abroad, held in Geneva in December 1905. He chaired the deliberations of that forum and brought about the merger of the Union of Polish Youth Societies and the Union of Academic Youth – two hitherto mutually antagonistic organisations.

Łódź chemist

At the age of 28, Leopold Skulski with his diploma in chemical engineering returned to Poland in 1906 and briefly became the manager of one of the production facilities of the Motor Warsaw Joint-Stock Company, which had two departments: chemical-pharmaceuticals and artificial mineral water. In 1907, he transferred to a branch of the company in Łódź, where he sold medications and pharmaceutical preparations.

In June 1910, the pharmacist and chemical engineer Leopold Skulski returned to pharmacy and leased a chemist’s from Oswald Gessner on Cegielniana Street (now Stefana Jaracza Street) that had been in existence since 1906 thanks to a loan to the tune of 5,000 roubles. Two years later, he set up his own starch factory in the building next door.

The next Łódź pharmacy where Skulski worked was the one owned by Franciszek Winnicki on Piotrkowska Street, where he took over from Mieczysław Ptaszyński as pharmacist. In 1916, he bought Winnicki's pharmacy and moved his starch factory there.

In June 1909, the Łódź Pharmacists' Association was established and plans were subsequently made to organize a pharmacists’ congress. Leopold Skulski was among those entrusted with the task of organising it. The First Pharmacists' Congress of the Kingdom of Poland was held on 21-22 May 1912 in Łódź with 180 pharmacists attending. They listened to 29 papers including one by Skulski, who spoke about the standardisation of medications. The delegates adopted 21 resolutions which dealt with issues including conditions in chemist's shops. The congress demonstrated the large scholarly potential of the pharmacy community. Following the outbreak of the First World War, Skulski joined the Central Committee of Citizens' Militia, formed on 3rd August 1914.

He became chairman of its pharmaceutical section created by the Łódź Pharmacists' Association in March 1915. The section oversaw the exactitude by which medications were prepared, supervised the supply of pharmaceuticals, monitored the quality of mineral water, kept records of pharmacies and, above all, protected medications and sanitary goods from German confiscation (after a year, the Germans would dissolve the committee).

Mayor of Łódź

It was in Łódź that Skulski began the public service that would eventually lead him to the post of prime minister. First of all, he became an activist of the Sokół (Falcons) Gymnastic Society and, after it was outlawed by the tsarist authorities, from June 1909 he was president of the Society of Friends of Physical Development.

From 1916, Skulski was active in the Łódź Municipal Care Council on a committee that sent youngsters to the countryside. He drafted a report on the care of children which he presented to Prince Eustachy Sapieha, who paid a visit to the city on 9th May 1917. During the First World War, on more than one occasion he negotiated with the German authorities for the creation of an association called the Polish Gymnastic Society and succeeded. On 6th August 1916, the founding meeting of an association by that name was held, and Skulski became its president. However, he resigned from that function, remaining only a member of the society's board, when in April 1917 he became the mayor of Łódź.

In December 1916, his name was listed in second place on the 19-person ballot of the Polish Election Committee. (Skulski had been involved in creating a coalition of Polish right-wing groupings which led to the emergence of the Polish Election Committee.)

After the election, in January 1917, Leopold Skulski became a councillor in Łódź, one of two from the Polish Election Committee's ballot. Following a several-month-long conflict in the council over the use of Polish as the town hall's official language and extensive haggling with the occupation authorities over mayoral appointments, he was nominated deputy mayor by the chief of police (a German named Schoppen became the mayor). Skulski remained in this post for half a year until the city council elected a successor.

As councillor, he also served as chairman of the Committee to Assist the Those in Need, was deputy chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee and the Officer of Weights and Measures. In the city council, he mainly dealt with social issues, demanded pay increases for teachers and workers and was responsible for normalizing working hours for clerks.

He turned out to be an efficient organiser and quickly adapted the municipal board to a self-governing model. It came as no surprise, therefore, that on 29th September 1917, by special order of the Imperial Prussian authorities, the chief of police nominated him to the post of Mayor of Łódź. As mayor, Skulski took a strong interest in the social issues of the townsfolk and frequently raised them at sessions of the city council. Upon his motion, in October 1917 councillors designated an additional 60,000 marks for the supplementary feeding of children and called for increasing the number of free and low-cost meals.

Leopold Skulski cabinet, 1919 At that critical turning point, when the First World War was ending, Leopold Skulski advocated the gradual take-over of power from the occupying forces, but acknowledged the arguments put forward by) paramilitary organisations and right-wing parties, who called for actively seizing power in Łódź.

The Prime Minister from Zamość

Leopold Skulski's duties as Mayor of Łódź ended when on 26th January 1919 he was elected to the Legislative Sejm on the ballot of the Popular National Union. He was due to work on the Administrative Committee and the Public Works Committee, but things turned out differently. Following the resignation of the government of Ignacy Paderewski, following a motion of the Sejm Chief of State, Józef Piłsudski entrusted Skulski with the mission of forming a cabinet. Piłsudski did not want Wojciech Korfanty, who was also disliked by Wincenty Witos, to become prime minister. He therefore came to an understanding with one of the former vice-presidents of the National People's Union, Leopold Skulski.

It was Wincenty Witos, head of the biggest parliamentary caucus, who urged Skulski to accept the nomination and form a new government, and convinced him that he could manage and would be able to command a parliamentary majority.

Leopold Skulski's coalition government emerged quickly, was sworn in on 13th December 1919 and started work the very same day. At the time, Warsaw’s cabarets sang a tune along the lines of: “Whether pianist or pharmacist it's all the same, brother; things won't get any better one way or the other!” Skulski's cabinet was the first semi-parliamentary government and it boasted an extensive programme.

Leopold Skulski was one of the youngest prime ministers in the Second Polish Republic (he was only 43 when he first took office). Despite Witos' strong personality, Skulski managed to hold his own, and Piłsudski gave him free rein as regards military actions against the invading Bolsheviks. That is not to suggest that Piłsudski was unaware of what was happening on the battle front. He was in fact well informed and exerted his influence at least on some decisions.

Without becoming too involved in foreign policy, Skulski concentrated on coordinating the government’s work. He lasted in his post for seven months at a time when cabinets rose and fell in rapid succession.  Skulski was a charismatic figure who personified the classic mediator skilled in the art of compromise. Although not an exceptional speaker, he stood out among other MPs. He attached importance to rational economic policy and strengthened the government as well as its individual ministries. He had his own concept of the state and initiated numerous projects, although his leadership was not free of mistakes.

The Skulski government was unable to implement its programme. It had planned to introduce the obligatory subdivision of large landed properties but kept delaying its implementation due to the ongoing Polish-Bolshevik war.

Amid the failure of the Polish military expedition to Kiev and the withdrawal of peasant parties from the government over delays in agrarian reforms and the rejection of the government's grain-trade draft retaining the policy of confiscation, Skulski became discouraged and embittered by the behaviour of his closer as well as more distant allies.

Leopold Skulski After presiding over a sitting of the Sejm, on the evening of 9th June he announced the resignation of his cabinet. During a crisis lasting around two weeks, attempts were made to form a cabinet, but they failed. For two weeks, Poland was without a government, and it was only on Piłsudski's request that Skulski handled the day-to-day affairs of state until a new cabinet could be chosen. On 24th July 1920, Wincenty Witos finally formed a coalition government in which Skulski, at Piłsudski's urging, was put in charge of the interior ministry. He performed that function until 28th June 1921, resigning following bloody clashes in southern Poland's Dąbrowa area.

Economic activist

Leopold Skulski was not only a politician - he was also a businessman, but only after withdrawing from political life. In 1928, he was involved first and foremost in business affairs. He was active in the business world as a member of the Auditing Commission of the Bank of Poland and a member of the board of directors of several banks. He was a shareholder in the British defence-industry enterprise Vickers Armstrong Ltd. as well as the Douglas Aviation concern set up in 1920. He was the president and a shareholder of Polskie Radio, a company established on 5th February 1924, and made important contributions to its functioning and programming. Skulski was also involved with civic organisations. He founded the Union of Gdansk Academics, subsequently – the Philistine Union, and in 1925 became president of the Łódź Electrical Society. He also conducted business in Łódź.

Mysterious demise

The fate of Leopold Skulski after he left Warsaw in 1939 is to this day shrouded in mystery. A search conducted after the war by family members suggested that as a civilian he, his wife and personal driver after leaving Warsaw fled to the east to Pińsk in the Polesie region. There he spent several days with good friends. After Soviet forces entered Pińsk, as a former Polish prime minister he was paid a visit by representatives of the Soviet authorities. Several days later he was arrested and sent to the local prison, from where he was soon transferred to the fortress at Brześć (Brest Litovsk).

From that moment, the family received no more credible information about his fate. They heard he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and forced labour. This last bit of information came from a repatriate who allegedly saw Skulski in 1947 in Ukhta near Archangelsk, where he reportedly worked at a chemical factory. Leopold Skulski's close family are convinced that one of the first prime ministers of post-First World War Poland was murdered in 1940 at the age of 61 in Kuropaty at the massacre site of 120,000 Poles and it is there that his mortal remains lie buried.

Source: “Czasopismo Aptekarskie”

Czasopismo Aptekarskie.gif