Death adorns a poster distributed by the Indiana Board of Health in the early part of the 20th century, advertising the abandonment of “unhealthy” practices. You can find many such gems online. The Indiana Public Health Historic Collections are located at

Pestilence was no stranger to early Indianapolis.

Built on swampland in a time when poor sanitation compounded the general ignorance of disease-causing mechanisms, Indy residents suffered enormously from outbreaks of malaria, dysentery, whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles, pneumonia, pleurisy, erysipelas, and something called, “milk sickness.” Documented epidemics of typhoid fever, smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera killed scores across the region.

During most of Indiana’s history (in fact, throughout much of the 19th century), Hoosier physicians could offer little in the way of effective treatment. ¬†Bloodletting, purging, errant tradition, superstition and downright quackery were performed house to house by the local doc, chemist or eclectic healer — in an attempt to stem contagion. In 1880, only three other cities in the US had a higher death rate than Indianapolis.


Health concerns for Marion County and the state 100 years ago this month.

The turn of the next century saw marked improvements in medical science and professionalism throughout the region. A statewide Board of Health was established. Food & Drug laws were enacted. The role of nutrition in health was beginning to be understood and sanitation standards were finally enforced.

Despite these incredible leaps forward, 100 years ago this month, authorities reported being particularly concerned about sanitation in canneries as well as rabies, polio and an outbreak of diphtheria. The Monthly Bulletin of the Indiana State Board of Health reported on the previous month’s “Public Health Side Show,” which was presented at the State Fair. The program, viewed by an estimated 20,000 attendees, featured a display of microscopes where guests could observe microbes… and “by means of a recent invention… still and moving pictures, in daylight.” Information about hygiene’s role in disease prevention, as well as nutrition were also highlighted. No doubt posters, such as the one featured above, adorned light posts and bulletin boards, threatening the specter of death upon those who would not heed public health warnings.

In just 100 years, we’ve come so far… except for those of us still “neglecting our bowels.”

FIBER, people!

Is there a historic Hoosier doctor or chemist in your family line?
Tell us all about him/her in the comment box below.




6 responses to “Sunday Adverts: Death as a Salesman”

  1. Brigette Cook Jones says:

    Great article! I always enjoy what you write!

    I have a locally well known doctor in my family, but not in my direct line. Her name was Dr. Mary Binford Bruner. I am a descendant of the Binfords on my Dad’s side. Mary would be a cousin. She also compiled a complete genealogy of the Binford family. So an interest in history must run in the family.

    Dr. Mary Binford Bruner was the physician who delivered by Papaw Ernest Cook (1908) and all of his siblings. She was a member of my church – Westland Friends – until she moved to Greenfield with her husband – who was also a doctor. The Richman History of Hancock County says this about her in her husband’s bio:

    It was in 1885 Doctor Charles Bruner was united in marriage to Dr. Mary L. Binford, who was born in this county, daughter of Robert Binford and wife, and who had just graduated in that year from the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago, after completing the course at Earlham College and in a training school for nurses at Chicago. Dr. Mary L. Bruner has not only been a valuable aid to her husband in the practice at Greenfield, but conducts an extensive practice apart from that of her husband, devoting her special attention to gynecology and diseases of children.

    In an article in our local paper several years ago – it commented that it was so unusual to have a woman doctor in the community at this time. The Bruner home and office was located right across the street from the Riley Home. This house was torn down to build a grocery store. Today it is the Pizza King.

  2. Dana Hubbard says:

    …concerned about sanitation in canaries? I think you mean “canneries” although budgies can be pretty foul too.

  3. Lisa Lorentz says:

    LOVE IT! I’ll fix the typo. That’s what I get for proofing at midnight… <3

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Thanks Brigette… and thanks for sharing the story of Dr. Binford Bruner, trail blazer!

  5. Keith Brown says:

    And Interesting that “death” speaks like Yoda… Great article Interesting that we still cannot follow Dr.s instruction all these years since….

  6. Lucia French says:

    My daughter has been asking about ancestry, so I spent a while today exploring the Internet. My grandmother was Martha Ann Binford, and I’ve seen some early family correspondence where my father (Howard Preston French Jr.) said he would need to check with Aunt Mary about some illness or other. I’m not certain yet whether Mary was Martha’s aunt or an older sister, but I’m thinking probably Martha’s aunt. I had assumed the family had always lived around Greenfield, so want to look further into the Westland connection.
    Love the poster by Death!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *