Early life and education
Humphrey was born in a room over his father's drugstore in Wallace, South Dakota. He was the son of Ragnild Kristine Sannes (1883–1973), a Norwegian immigrant, and Hubert Horatio Humphrey Sr. (1882–1949). Humphrey spent most of his youth in Doland, South Dakota, on the Dakota prairie; the town's population was about 600. His father was a licensed pharmacist who served as mayor and a town council member; he also served briefly in the South Dakota state legislature and was a South Dakota delegate to the 1944 and 1948 Democratic National Conventions. In the late 1920s, a severe economic downturn hit Doland; both of the town's banks closed and Humphrey's father struggled to keep his store open.
Humphrey working as a pharmacist in his father's pharmacy.
After his son graduated from Doland's high school, Hubert Sr. left Doland and opened a new drugstore in the larger town of Huron, South Dakota (population 11,000), where he hoped to improve his fortunes. Because of the family's financial struggles, Humphrey had to leave the University of Minnesota after just one year. He earned a pharmacist's license from the Capitol College of Pharmacy in Denver, Colorado (completing a two-year licensure program in just six months), and helped his father run his store from 1931 to 1937. Both father and son were innovative in finding ways to attract customers: "to supplement their business, the Humphreys had become manufacturers ... of patent medicines for both hogs and humans. A sign featuring a wooden pig was hung over the drugstore to tell the public about this unusual service. Farmers got the message, and it was Humphrey's that became known as the farmer's drugstore." One biographer noted, "while Hubert Jr. minded the store and stirred the concoctions in the basement, Hubert Sr. went on the road selling 'Humphrey's BTV' (Body Tone Veterinary), a mineral supplement and dewormer for hogs, and 'Humphrey's Chest Oil' and 'Humphrey's Sniffles' for two-legged sufferers." Humphrey later wrote, "we made 'Humphrey's Sniffles', a substitute for Vick's Nose Drops. I felt ours were better. Vick's used mineral oil, which is not absorbent, and we used a vegetable-oil base, which was. I added benzocaine, a local anesthetic, so that even if the sniffles didn't get better, you felt it less." The various "Humphrey cures ... worked well enough and constituted an important part of the family income ... the farmers that bought the medicines were good customers." Over time Humphrey's Drug Store became a profitable enterprise and the family again prospered. While living in Huron, Humphrey regularly attended Huron's largest Methodist church and became the scoutmaster of the church's Boy Scout group, Troop 6. He "started basketball games in the church basement ... although his scouts had no money for camp in 1931, Hubert found a way in the worst of that summer's dust-storm grit, grasshoppers, and depression to lead an overnight [outing]."
Humphrey did not enjoy working as a pharmacist, and his dream remained to earn a doctorate in political science and become a college professor. His unhappiness was manifested in "stomach pains and fainting spells", though doctors could find nothing wrong with him. In August 1937, he told his father that he wanted to return to the University of Minnesota. Hubert Sr. tried to convince his son not to leave by offering him a full partnership in the store, but Hubert Jr. refused and told his father "how depressed I was, almost physically ill from the work, the dust storms, the conflict between my desire to do something and be somebody and my loyalty to him ... he replied "Hubert, if you aren't happy, then you ought to do something about it." Humphrey returned to the University of Minnesota in 1937 and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1939. He was a member of Kappa Psi Pharmaceutical Fraternity. He also earned a master's degree from Louisiana State University in 1940, serving as an assistant instructor of political science there. One of his classmates was Russell B. Long, a future U.S. Senator from Louisiana.
He then became an instructor and doctoral student at the University of Minnesota from 1940 to 1941 (joining the American Federation of Teachers), and was a supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Humphrey was a star on the university's debate team; one of his teammates was future Minnesota Governor and US Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman. In the 1940 presidential campaign Humphrey and future University of Minnesota president Malcolm Moos debated the merits of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic nominee, and Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee, on a Minneapolis radio station. Humphrey supported Roosevelt. Humphrey soon became active in Minneapolis politics, and as a result never finished his PhD.