The Other Thaddeus Stevens... PART ONE

June 15, 2020 12:42 PM | Sarah Halter (Administrator)

by Sarah Halter

If you don't love history, it's because you haven't been properly introduced to it. Sometimes the stories that on the surface sound the most boring and the most relevant, turn out to be exactly the opposite.

Case in point: the establishment of the Indiana State Board of Health

Dr. Thaddeus Merrill Stevens was the fabulously awkward first Secretary of the Indiana State Board of Health. He's not a very well-known figure in Indiana's history, which is really a shame. You may be thinking, "Thaddeus Stevens, eh? I've heard that name...” Well, you probably have if you’re a big history nerd like me, but it's not the same guy. I'm talking about the Other Thaddeus Stevens…our Thaddeus Stevens. The Thaddeus Stevens you may remember was a US Representative from Pennsylvania and a leader of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican party in the 1860s. He was difficult to get along with for many, but he was also pretty interesting and progressive for his time-- an advocate for free public education, an opponent of slavery and of discrimination against African Americans, and later an advocate for African American rights during the Reconstruction period.

OUR Thaddeus Stevens was that guy's nephew.

Before the Indiana State Board of Health was established, there were a handful of local health departments in the Indiana. But there were no state-led efforts to promote or track the health of Hoosiers. We did have a state-wide medical society, and in 1855 that society formally proposed that a committee of members from all over the state should be established and meet regularly to collect vital statistics, address issues of epidemics, and make recommendations, etc. The State Legislature at the time had little interest in creating such a committee, so the idea was tabled. But in the 1870s, a new push was made to form a State Board of Health. Our Thaddeus Stevens, Thaddeus M. Stevens, MD, professor of toxicology, medical jurisprudence, and chemistry at Indiana Medical College, was very actively involved in these efforts. He delivered addresses stressing the importance of collecting and analyzing data, informing local boards of health and the public about health issues, and addressing the factors that lead to epidemics so they could be stopped before they began.

After years of pleas and prodding by the medical field and years of indifference from the State government, what is now called the Indiana State Medical Association, grew impatient and took it upon themselves to create such a board on its own with Thaddeus Stevens as its chair. This committee didn't have much real power to execute health ordinances or force counties to collect, report, and track information. But they did force the State to take notice and recognize the value of such action.

In 1881, a former Civil War surgeon-turned family doctor-turned State Senator from Marion County, the delightfully named Flavius Josephus Van Vorhis, proposed Senate Bill 93, which established the Indiana State Board of Health, now the Indiana State Health Department. SB93 passed the Senate in March, 39 to 3, and on the last day of session, it passed the House 56 to 20 and was signed by Governor Albert Porter. This new act of legislation provided a system of registration and reporting of vital statistics and sanitary statistics for most counties, townships, and cities, and it imposed penalties on violations. This Board consisted of five members, four of whom would be appointed by the Governor and did not have to be physicians. The fifth member, to be elected by the other members of the Board, was required to be a doctor. This was the Secretary of the Board, who would be known as the Health Officer of the State. The splendidly coifed Thaddeus Stevens (See for yourself above!), was the Board's first Secretary. He was considered by many to be the Father of Public Health in Indiana. He was considered by others to be a dreamer, rather peculiar, and even "a strange man."

I think to understand what happened next, a little background information is helpful. There aren't a lot of surviving records of our Thaddeus Stevens’ early life. A later Public Health Officer, Thurman Rice, who was a bit of a controversial figure for reasons that we won't dive into here today, gave an account of Thaddeus Stevens' life and family in a book he published in 1946.* It goes something like this: Thaddeus Stevens' grandfather was a shoemaker in Vermont. He was also a champion wrestler and a "right merry fellow." He may or may not have been killed in the War of 1812, but he definitely disappeared. There were rumors he had just walked away. The family lore, again according to Rice who had been in contact with Stevens' descendants, was that he'd lost interest in shoes...grew tired of his family...and ran off to join a circus as a bear wrestler. His children suffered terribly because of their father's reputation and abandonment. They were bullied in school and grew up to be rather bitter, sensitive, somewhat childish adults. At least one of his sons passed these personality flaws on to his own children. The shoemaker's oldest son was that first Thaddeus Stevens, and another, Joshua Stevens, became the father of our Thaddeus Stevens.

Thurman Rice's account of Thaddeus Steven's early life paints him as a reserved, abstracted, and overly-sensitive young man who lacked people skills, was incredibly stubborn and relentless, and often seemed detached and in his own world. Based on events from his later life...things we know with more certainty...this seems like a reasonably accurate depiction.

Joshua Stevens was an early settler in the Indianapolis area, and in 1829 he purchased land near what is now the intersection of Delaware and Washington Streets. He got married, had three children, became a widower, got married again, got divorced, and then died in 1858. Like his father before him, Joshua was...a bit strange. He was strongly-disliked and to some was a physically disturbing presence- enormous and club-footed. He was generally considered to be mentally deranged. When he died, his somewhat meager estate went to Thaddeus, who being "a very impractical man in his personal affairs," promptly squandered it.

Young Thaddeus grew up, became a doctor, taught in medical school, and had a remarkably successful career...at first. He was married twice, and both wives died leaving him with small children that he was emotionally ill-equipped and possibly too busy to care for. He married a third time, though, and things worked out better. Not only did she outlive him by decades, she was also very supportive of his work and lived with his sons long after his death.

Stevens graduated from the Indiana Medical College in about 1852. As early as 1856 he was a very active member of the Indiana Medical Society. He served on numerous committees and gave many papers at their meetings. He was an Indiana delegate at several American Medical Association annual meetings. And his papers were on a wide and interesting variety of topics including legal medicine, insanity, crime, toxicology, and public health. He was an active advocate not only for the establishment of the Indiana State Board of Health but also for asylum and prison reform, public hospitals, improved medical education, and so on. He was highly praised and respected, but at the same time was not well-liked personally by many and was pitied by some.

In 1881, Thaddeus Stevens was elected Secretary of the new Indiana State Board of Health. This was a brand-new board governing a brand-new state agency, and no one really knew what to do or how to begin. Indiana was knee-deep in a smallpox epidemic. And county and town leaders were slow to implement the new reporting rules. In many places, the new rules and procedures were simply ignored. It was chaotic and confusing, and Stevens, as the administrating officer of the board, had a lot of trouble making anything happen. He became frustrated with the situation, but in trying to remedy it, he made things much worse. He was brilliant. He was a good doctor. He understood what was needed. But he lacked the leadership skills needed to bring others on board and to get things done. He lacked the communication skills needed to convey his ideas clearly and coherently. He was better at nagging and agitating than taking action. He'd always preferred theory to practice. So, you won't be surprised to learn that from the very beginning, there were clashes between him and the other Board members.

Within a year, the Board decided they couldn't bear it any longer. They charged that Stevens was incapable of doing his job and determined to replace him. On March 15, 1883, after a secret meeting held without Stevens' presence or even knowledge, a report was filed removing Thaddeus Stevens as Secretary of the Board due to his "mismanagement and ...incompetency" and replacing him. Effective immediately Stevens was "ordered to deliver forthwith all books, papers and furniture, and all other property of the Board in his possession, to his successor" as soon as he'd been formally notified of his own removal. And the Board, God love 'em, decided that Steven's own replacement should deliver the bad news. The shock of all of this understandably angered Stevens, but his handling of the situation merely increased the tension.

And this is where the story really gets interesting….stay tuned for Part Two.


*Thurman B. Rice, MD. “Dr. Thaddeus M. Stevens- Pioneer in Public Health [Chapter XIV].” In The Hoosier Health Officer: A Biography of Dr. John N. Hurty, 57–60, n.d.



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