One of the greatest records of public service ever compiled by a graduate of Indiana University belonged to Otis R. Bowen, BA’39, MD’42, LLD’76. From IU, Bowen went on to serve as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1956–58 and 1960–72, Speaker of the Indiana House from 1966–72, the 44th Governor of Indiana from 1973–81, and the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1985–89, the first physician to do so.
The prominence of Bowen’s later career of service is matched by the modesty of the circumstances from which he set out. Many of us tend to think of the first half of the 20th century as a simpler time, but as Bowen’s story indicates, life then could be every bit as complicated as that experienced by today’s students. In this lesser-known phase of Bowen’s story lies instructive and inspirational insights about the importance of determination, hard work, and resilience.
Bowen was born near Rochester, Ind., in 1918 to Vernie Bowen and Pearl Irene Wright. His father, the fifteenth of his parents’ children, taught all eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse for $2.50 a day, where he also served as janitor and nurse. It took Vernie 17 years of summer school to complete his college degree, which he received when Otis was a high school sophomore. He earned extra income as a master carpenter and woodworker.
Looking back on his own primary school days, Otis Bowen recalled that they had no projectors, calculators, or computers then—just pencils, chalk, and blackboards. The teacher who had the most influence on him was his father, who taught him algebra, geometry, manual training, mechanical drawing, and physical education, and coached his basketball and baseball teams. “Dad didn’t put up with any classroom foolishness. He believed in discipline,” said Bowen.
Bowen started college in 1935 at age 17. He arrived on campus with a single small suitcase and a laundry bag. His first roommate came in drunk the first night, so he moved to a boarding house where he had a room with two desks and one bed that he shared with a different roommate. Initially preoccupied with the challenge of earning good grades for medical school, he was soon surprised to find himself homesick. His father rebuffed the suggestion that he take a factory job and insisted he remain in school.
Bowen was “poor,” but he got by with frugality. He limited his food expenses to 50 cents per day—10 cents for a roll and glass of milk at breakfast, then 20 cents each for lunch and dinner. On occasion, he would splurge for a blue-plate special at supper—30 cents. The financial challenge was compounded by the fact that he was in the first class of students at IU who would need three years of college instead of two to enter medical school.
Knowing that he would need money for medical school, Bowen did “every odd job that came my way.” He hoed potatoes (10 cents an hour), built a chicken coop ($5 for the week), shocked oats and wheat ($1 a day), mowed yards (25 cents for small ones, 35 cents for large ones), and opened up a gas station at 6:30 a.m., earning a penny for each gallon he pumped. Between his freshman and sophomore years, Bowen worked on a dairy farm, rising at 3:45 a.m. each day to milk 12 cows by hand, then cooling, bottling, and delivering the milk. He also waited tables at a sorority and later at the Delta Chi house, which he pledged.
During his college years, Bowen met Elizabeth Steinmann, the daughter of a Crown Point butcher. He called her “Beth.” Five weeks after they met, he proposed marriage, giving her a small diamond. She remained at home and he returned to school in Bloomington, so they only saw each other a few times a year at holidays or when he hitchhiked home. Learning that he was broke, she helped to keep him in school by dipping into her own funds.
Things would only get more difficult—college fees were only $35 per semester, but medical school fees jumped to $200. Bowen was always trying to devise ways to make money. Gray’s Anatomy, the premedical student’s bible, was a bulky book and difficult to lug around, and he devised a denim cover with handles to make it easier to carry. Other students saw his invention, and soon he had sold book bags to most of his classmates for $1.50 each.
Bowen received good news when he was appointed “cadaver boy” in his senior year, also his first year of medical school. His duties entailed accepting and embalming unclaimed bodies from prisons, country poor farms, and mental institutions. His predecessor showed him the ropes, which included extracting gold from teeth, which would have been destroyed in any case during cremation. At year’s end, he sold the gold for $35, which went directly to pay educational expenses.
Late in Bowen’s senior year, he and Beth got married. Since he was not yet 21, his mother had to accompany him to the clerk’s office to consent. After the small ceremony and a one-night “honeymoon,” he got a ride back to Bloomington from a classmate he never told about the marriage. His friend found out only later when someone noticed a ring on Bowen’s finger. It would be 18 more months before the couple could live together.
Back in Indianapolis, Bowen worked and slept at the Wheeler Mission, a mile from the medical school. He walked to campus every day—“rain, sleet, or snow”—carrying books and a black dinner pail containing a sandwich, an apple or orange, and a thermos of milk. Each night after the mission’s mandatory 9 p.m. chapel service, Bowen accompanied 10 to 50 transients to the basement showers and checked them for lice. Though aspirin and lice ointments were his only drugs, he felt like a doctor.
When Bowen took a job at a local funeral home, he and his new wife could finally afford to live together. They occupied one of the upstairs bedrooms of the funeral home and she cooked evening meals. Bowen’s relatively rare blood type enabled him to donate blood to a local car dealer’s leukemia-stricken father, and each time he gave 50 percent more than the usual amount. In thanks, the car dealer practically gave them a used Ford, which they called their “blood car.”
During Bowen’s last year of medical school in 1941, he and his classmates were summoned to Emerson Hall by the Dean, Willis Gatch. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and they listened together to the radio broadcast of President Roosevelt’s request that Congress declare war. Graduation was accelerated, and on that May day, Bowen was also commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army. After an internship in South Bend, Ind., he served as a medical officer in the Pacific theater.
After military service, Bowen returned to Bremen, Ind., to practice family medicine. His first case was poison ivy, and his $1.50 fee included a bottle of calamine lotion. His typical day started at 6:30 a.m. After hospital rounds and house calls, office hours began at 9 a.m., followed by a house call or two and lunch at noon, then back to the office until 6 p.m. In addition to surgeries such as tonsillectomies and appendectomies, Bowen delivered about 10 babies per month, amounting to 3,000 throughout his career.
After he completed his second term as governor, Bowen assumed a position on the faculty of the IU School of Medicine, which named its Center for Health Workforce Research and Policy after him. During his service as HHS secretary, he continued to be known as “Doc,” keeping a prescription pad handy for the ailments of colleagues and members of the press. When he retired, he returned to his northern Indiana homeland, where he died in 2013 at the age of 95.
Though many contemporaries would regard Bowen’s hardscrabble youth as anything but enviable, when he looked back over his long career in his memoir, Doc: Memories from a Life in Public Service (IU Press, 2000), he expressed his gratitude that he had been born “at a good time under circumstances that made me a better person.” Growing up in a small Indiana town, he said, had taught him “persistence, determination, sticking to a project, and never giving up on a goal.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.