Friday Favorites: Healin’ Hurty

Written by on February 7, 2014 in Friday Favorites, Uncategorized - 1 Comment
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John N. Hurty, who in 1883 convinced Purude University President James H. Smart that Purdue should offer courses to train students as pharmacists. Purdue University photo.

John N. Hurty (1852-1925) Purdue University photo.

(C)lean and Mean…

John Hurty began his career in Indianapolis at a time when cows and pigs roamed the city streets at will. So much livestock lived among the human citizenry (an estimated 400 cows on the south side of town, alone) that one Indianapolis newspaper suggested the nickname, “Cowopolis.” Despite the meager beginnings, John Newell Hurty (M.D., Phar.D.) came to be known as the original Hoosier Health Officer.

It was a dirty uphill battle, but he was feisty.

Hurty was born in Ohio in February of 1852 and came to Indianapolis in 1875 after a course of study at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Jefferson Medical College. In 1879, Hurty opened his own drugstore at the corner of Ohio and Pennsylvania streets. In the basement, he set up one of the first analytical laboratories in Indiana where he tested the purity of wines for local hotels, paints and lubricants for the railroads, coal for the power company, and water for the Indianapolis Water Company. He also created cosmetics. A few years later, he worked for Col. Eli Lilly.

Hurty in 1896. Photo: Indiana Historic Bureau. The IHB offers a fascinating publication on pioneers in Indiana Health at http://www.in.gov/history/files/publichealth.pdf

Dr. Hurty in 1896. Photo: Indiana Historic Bureau.

From 1890-93, Hurty served as chemist for the Indianapolis City Board of Health. In the latter part of the 19th Century, diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and typhoid fever ran rampant in the city, just like the cows. Sanitation practices were regarded with contempt by some classes and many believed epidemics were nothing less than “God’s will.” From the beginning, Hurty conducted an aggressive campaign for the improvement of the city water supply toward the eradication of typhoid fever. In 1895, he induced the Health Board to distribute serum to physicians for throat cultures – not a common practice for the time. Success led to his appointment as secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health in 1896.

Dr. John N. Hurty served as secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health for more than twenty-five years. Photo: Indiana Magazine of History.

Dr. John N. Hurty served as secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health for more than twenty-five years. Photo: Indiana Magazine of History.

As secretary, Hurty’s investigation into the typhus epidemic revealed that White River was being polluted by the village of Broad Ripple and the contents of its privies. Hurty solved the problem by designing a sand filter. Meanwhile, he campaigned against spitting and for daily cleaning of public schools with disinfectants. He also put a stop to unchecked sanitation conditions in state institutions.

Then, from 1896-98, Hurty worked tirelessly to defeat the local diphtheria epidemic. It was not unusual for the good doctor to make frequent personal visits to blighted areas, campaign for (demand) vaccinations, vehemently lobby (harass) local authorities and publicly instruct (upbraid) sanitation detractors.

An 1892 bottle of sour mash whiskey distributed by the Kiefer-Stewart Company displays the results of a chemical analysis performed by J.N. Hurty, a pharmacist/M.D. who served as State Health Commissioner from 1896 through 1922. On the label, Hurty proclaims that the "purity and excellence" of the sour mash whiskey recommended it "for all medicinal purposes." Photo: Libby Cierzniak.

An 1892 bottle of sour mash whiskey displays the results of a chemical analysis performed by J.N. Hurty. On the label, Hurty proclaims that the “purity and excellence” of the sour mash whiskey recommended it “for all medicinal purposes.” Photo: Libby Cierzniak.

During his tenure, Hurty was instrumental in the passage of the 1899 model Indiana law on pure food and drugs and helped to enact birth and death registration laws. He was so adamant about the latter legislation that he once exhumed a prominent farmer after his doctor and undertaker failed to register the proper paperwork–to the jeers of an angry crowd. In his speech to the onlookers he declared, “Men are not dogs. They should not be simply thrown in a hole and covered up.” His dramatics seem to have driven-home the fact that the law was to be obeyed.

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Hurty Pharmacy pill box. Image credit: Libby Cierzniak.

 

Hurty must have been a consummate instructor. He retained teaching appointments at Indiana Dental College and the Medical College of Indiana — and continued as an instructor at both for the duration of his life. He also assisted in founding the Purdue University School of Pharmacy where he served as dean for a time.

In his long career as health crusader, his public relations campaigns, pamphlets, and posters were legendary. He fought poor personal hygiene, smallpox, water pollution, and ignorance of sexual practice. He quarantined a church, a brothel, and a women’s card club. He fought for a higher standards of sanitation in drug stores and dairies.

Photo from McClure's Magazine archives. The caption read: DR. JOHN N. HURTY  SECRETARY OF THE BOARD OF HEALTH IN INDIANA, WHICH HAS RECENTLY PASSED A LAW FORBIDDING THE MARRIAGE OF IMBECILES, EPILEPTICS, AND PERSONS SUFFERING FROM CONTAGIOUS DISEASE.

Photo from McClure’s Magazine archives. The caption read: DR. JOHN N. HURTY
SECRETARY OF THE BOARD OF HEALTH IN INDIANA, WHICH HAS RECENTLY PASSED A LAW FORBIDDING THE MARRIAGE OF IMBECILES, EPILEPTICS, AND PERSONS SUFFERING FROM CONTAGIOUS DISEASE.

Amid all of Hurty’s accomplishments is a chapter that many today would find cringe-worthy: Indiana’s Eugenics Crusader. Around 1900, the notion of the selective breeding of humans gained traction among doctors, sociologists, and public health officials. Due in large part to the activism of Dr. Hurty, the Indiana legislature, in 1907, passed the nation’s first law providing for the sterilization of those labeled undesirable. The law was vetoed in 1909, but several hundred Indiana residents convicted of criminal offenses, and those deemed mentally or morally deficient, had already been sterilized. His writings reveal that he viewed the unintelligent, sick, and disabled as financial burdens upon the state.
Dr. Hurty is interred at Crown Hill Cemetery. Photo: Find A Grave.

Dr. Hurty is interred at Crown Hill Cemetery. Photo: Find A Grave.

Resigning from the Board of Health in 1922, Hurty was elected to the Indiana General Assembly with the goal to strengthen the State Board of Health. He continued to pursue his sanitation and eugenics agendas as a columnist for the Indianapolis News, and an instructor.

Dr. John Hurty died in March of 1925.

A more recent memorial stone was erected in Hurty's honor at Crown Hill Cemetery within the last 10 years.

A memorial stone was erected within the last 10 years at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Among his most notable legacies is the first comprehensive food and drug legislation to be enacted in the United States, passed in 1899. It was not only used a model by other states, but the Federal Law of 1906 is taken almost word-for-word from the Hurty bill.

 Who are your historic Hoosier heroes?

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About the Author

Lisa Lorentz is a native Hoosier and 25-year Indianapolitan with an awkward fascination for dusty attics, antique typewriters and microfilm. Professionally, Lisa serves as Director of the Cell Therapy Foundation as well as freelance writer and marketing consultant to several nonprofit organizations.

One Comment on "Friday Favorites: Healin’ Hurty"

  1. Tom Davis February 7, 2014 at 6:00 pm · Reply

    The mention of diphtheria caught my eye. My dad’s youngest sister died at the age of 8 from that disease here in Indianapolis in the mid-30s and is buried in Floral Park. My dad remembered the house being quarantined for awhile.

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