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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.