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Moment of Indiana History

Beyond Reform: Indiana’s Eugenics Crusader

At the core of Hurty’s public health philosophy lay eugenics—he viewed the sick and disabled as financial burdens upon the state.

Dr. John Hurty

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.

Around 1900, the notion of the selective breeding of humans gained traction among a growing number of doctors, sociologists, and public health officials, including David Starr Jordan, onetime president of Indiana University.

In 1907, the Indiana legislature passed the nation’s first law providing for the sterilization of those labeled undesirable. Until the law was vetoed in 1909, several hundred Indiana residents convicted of criminal offenses and those deemed mentally or morally deficient were sterilized.

The legislation’s passage may in part be ascribed to the activism of the longtime director of the Indiana Board of Health Dr. John Hurty. The Ohio native started his career as a pharmacist working for Colonel Eli Lilly, with whom he moved to Indianapolis. After operating his own pharmacy and teaching college courses in hygiene and pharmacy, Hurty took office at the Board of Health, where he remained for 26 years.

While he led successful campaigns against tuberculosis and other diseases, and improved the quality of water, food, and medicine, at the core of Hurty’s public health philosophy lay eugenics—he viewed the sick and disabled as financial burdens upon the state.

Resigning from the Board of Health in 1922, Hurty—once considered Indiana’s “most useful” man–pursued his agenda as a state legislator, a columnist for the Indianapolis News and an instructor for state university medical and health programs.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History, published by the Indiana University Department of History.

Source Article:  Jennifer Burek Pierce, “Dr. John Hurty & the Indiana Board of Health,” Indiana Magazine of History 106:3 (September 2010), 224-246.

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