Roberta West Nicholson: “Without a Scintilla of Prejudice”

See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.

pic

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.

At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.

mort-stat
Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse, courtesy of Waymarking.com.

To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Marion County Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

newspapdsp
Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, January 3, 1937, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:

I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.

In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”

blind
WPA project for the blind, young woman operating braille machine at the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”

jeffersonville_station_in_flood_1937_bass_
Jeffersonville Station submerged by the 1937 flood, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection.
flood-workers
WPA workers, “Flood Control,” Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”

In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:

[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.

She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”

war-black
Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.

Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:

The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.

She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:

[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.

stuff
Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.

black-troosp
African American Army anti-aircraft regiment, Indianapolis Recorder, September 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:

[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.

According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”

v
Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, February 16, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”

In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”

Roberta West Nicholson: Eviscerator of Gold-Diggers & Champion of Social Reform

pic

If Roberta West Nicholson has received any recognition at all, it’s been from Men’s Rights Groups, who have praised her revolutionary Anti-Heart Balm Bill. However, the bill, like much of her work, was progressively liberal and centered around equality. As the only woman legislator in 1935-1936, in her work to educate the public about sexual health, efforts against discrimination in Indianapolis, and champion children’s causes, West was a public servant in the purest sense. Despite her tireless work, she struggled to escape the shadow of her father-in-law, famous Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, and to be associated with social reform rather than her “cuteness.” In an interview with the Indiana State Library (ISL) conducted in the 1970s, she did just that, but unfortunately, it has been largely overlooked.

Even as a young college student, the Cincinnati, Ohio native deviated from the norm. Nicholson attended one semester at the University of Cincinnati, leaving after an exasperating experience with the sorority system, which she found “excessively boring.” Unbending to sorority policies which required dating male pledges and attending numerous parties, it became evident that Nicholson interests were incompatible with those of her sisters. After one of several instances of bullying, she proudly returned the sorority pin, withdrew from the college, and went to finishing school.

Roberta met her husband, Meredith Nicholson Jr., at a summer resort in Northport Point, MI. In 1925, the two were married and she moved to Indiana, where she was “absolutely bowled over by the fact that it was virtually the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and their vile machinations.” From a politically conservative family, Mrs. Nicholson soon found that in Indiana “the Republican party, as far as I could ascertain, was almost synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. Well, how could you be anything but a Democrat, you know? That was to be on the side of angels so to speak.”

klan-in-indiana
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” scene on a mural representing Indiana at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, courtesy of Indiana University, accessed Indiana Public Media.

The day of her wedding, Roberta’s father received two letters, “terrible penmanship-pencil on cheap lined paper-warning him to stop the marriage of his daughter to that ‘nigger loving Jew.'”* Her father spent a large amount of money trying to identify the author of the “vitriolic hatred,” an attempt that proved unsuccessful. The couple’s wedded bliss was also impeded by the Great Depression, in which Meredith Jr. lost everything in the stock market and “this beautiful dream world we’d been living in is all of a sudden gone.” Following the bankruptcy of her husband’s company, Roberta took a job at Stewarts book store, supporting the family on $15 a week.

After the adoption of liberal principles, Nicholson engaged in her first real reform work in 1931. Birth control activist Margaret Sanger reportedly solicited Nicholson to help establish Indianapolis’s first Planned Parenthood center. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began Nicholson’s 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

sanger
Margaret Sanger, circa 1917, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Outside of her role in Planned Parenthood, she worked as a public educator, going into cities, sometimes “very poor, miserable ghetto neighborhood[s],” to increase awareness of the “menace of venereal disease.” It became clear to Nicholson that ignorance about sexual health was widespread, including her own lack of knowledge about diseases, which she had referred to syphilis as the “awful awfuls” and gonorrhea the “never nevers.” During these often uncomfortable meetings with the public, Nicholson sought to inspire an open dialogue and a back and forth about taboo subjects. Nicholson also showed reproduction films to middle schoolers a job that provoked titters by students and sometimes outrage on the part of parents.

Her dedication to improve the welfare of children intensified during the Great Depression, when she witnessed impoverished children modeling clothes made by WPA employees. This was an effort to prove to those Indianapolis newspapers highly critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal that social programs were effective. Seeing these children being used to “get some bigoted publisher to change his views on some very necessary emergency measures” made her think of her own children and brought her to tears. In her ISL interview, she stated that “I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life helping children that were disadvantaged, and I have.”

In 1932, Nicholson founded the Juvenile Court Bi-Partisan Committee, to convince politicians to reform juvenile justice and “keep the court out of politics and to employ qualified persons to handle the children.” These efforts proved successful, when in 1938 Judge Wilfred Bradshaw reformed the court. Nicholson served as a longtime committee member and in 1946, when other members became frustrated with progress and resigned, Nicholson stayed, saying “I feel that because you are going to sometimes lose your point of conviction doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Nicholson also worked to improve the lives of Indianapolis children as the president of the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency and group home, and in her work on the board of Directors of the Child Welfare League.

At the encouragement of her mother-in-law, she worked with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal. In her interview with ISL, she explained her motive for joining the effort to repeal the 18th Amendment:

“These women felt very deeply about the fact that prohibition had inaugurated the era of of the gangsters: the illicit traffic in liquor, with no taxes and everything. They were building this empire of crime…And I said, ‘I am interested in it because these are the craziest days.’ Everybody had a bootlegger. I suppose real poor people didn’t but you never went to a party where there weren’t cocktails. I remember feeling very deeply ashamed to think that my children would be growing up with parents who were breaking the law. How was I going to teach them to fly right? I certainly wasn’t up to bucking the trend. So I thought, ‘All right, Ill work on this, that’s fine.’”

In 1933, Governor Paul V. McNutt appointed her to the Liquor Control Advisory Board and she was elected secretary to the state constitutional convention that ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition.

brewery_celebration
Terre Haute Brewing Company, circa 1934, likely celebrating the repeal of prohibition, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Her experience and qualifications made her a natural choice for public office. In 1934, she was convinced by the county chairman to run for Legislature during the FDR administration because “the Democrats smelled victory, because of the dramatic actions of the president. They wanted to get some names they thought would be meaningful to the voters so they invited me.” Although Nicholson had studied the issues in depth, it turned out that in order to be elected “all that was expected of one was to step up to the podium and say, ‘I stand four square behind FDR.’ That did it.”

Win she did, becoming the only woman to serve in the 1935-1936 legislature, where she faced sexism. According to the Indianapolis Star, during her time as secretary of the public morals committee, she informed her committeemen, “‘If you think you’re going to stop me from talking just because I’ll be taking minutes, you’re wrong-I’ve got some things to say, and I’m going to say them.'” Nicholson elaborated that many of her colleagues thought:

“Wasn’t it cute of her. She’s got a bill. She’s going to introduce it just like a man. Isn’t that darling?’ I restrained myself, because after all I was in the distinct minority. I could not offend them. So I would just bat my eyelashes and beam at them and act as if I thought it was the way I wanted to be treated. Wasn’t that the only thing to do?”

indy-star-jan-16-1935
Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.

Not only did she “have” a bill, but her breach of promise bill, dubbed the “Anti-Heart Balm Bill,” made waves in Indiana and across the country. Nicholson’s proposal would outlaw the ability of a woman to sue a man who had promised to marry them, but changed their minds. She felt that deriving monetary gain from emotional pain went against feminist principles and that if a man did the same to a woman he would be absolutely condemned. Nicholson described her reasoning for the bill,  which generally had the support of women across the nation:

“…it just seemed perfectly silly to me, that from time immemorial, a female being engaged to be married could change her mind and say, ‘Sorry Joe, it’s all off.’ But if the man did, and if he had any money, he could be sued. I thought that was absolutely absurd. . . . The thing that was so amazing and truly surprising to me is that it was widely interpreted as giving free reign to predatory males to take advantage of chaste maidens which, of course, was diametrically opposed to what my conception was. I thought-and I still think-that it was an early blow for women’s liberation. I thought it was undignified and disgusting that women sued men for the same changing their mind about getting married.”

Nicholson’s bill passed the House fairly easily, but was held up in the Senate because, in her opinion, “Something new was being tried and several of the senators felt, ‘Why should we be first?” The bill also encountered resistance by lawyers who profited from breach of promise suits. Eventually the bill passed, inspiring similar legislation in other states. The Indianapolis Star credited Nicholson’s bill with bringing the “Spotlight, Pathe News, Time and Look magazines hurrying to Indiana by sponsoring and successfully promoting the famous heart-balm bill which has saved many a wealthy Indianian embarrassment, both social and financial by preventing breach of promise suits.”

karl_kae_knecht_cartoon
Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon, courtesy of Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

After passage of the “Gold-Diggers bill,” Nicholson was invited to speak around the country. At an address to the Chicago Association of Commerce and the Alliance of Business and Professional Women, she said “It seemed to me that we should say to these gold diggers and shyster lawyers, as did the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Off with their heads!” She added, “I am not a professional moralist, but I have attempted to set up a deterrent to irregular relations by removing the prospect of pecuniary profit from them.”

lady
The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Nicholson also received criticism during her legislative career for supporting the Social Security Act, for which a special session was called in 1936. The Head of the Indiana Taxpayers Association stopped her near the statehouse and asked if she would be voting for “‘that terrible communist social security.'” When she confirmed she was, Nicholson noted that his face creased with rage and he sped off in his chauffeured car. A state senator shared his conviction, contending that the act’s supporters were “‘Trying to turn this country into a GD Ethiopia!'”

Perhaps the most intense scrutiny Nicholson faced as a lawmaker was in her role as a working mother. The Indianapolis Star noted that nothing made Nicholson madder than “to have interfering friends charge that she is neglecting her family to pursue the career of a budding stateswoman.” The paper relayed Nicholson’s response:

“‘Some of my friends have told me that they think it is ‘perfectly terrible’ of me to get myself elected to the Legislature and spend the greater part of sixty days away from the children. . . . I told them, ‘I don’t spend any more time away from my children than other mothers do who play bridge and go to luncheons all the time.’ I try to be a good mother and so far as my being in the Legislature preventing me from going to parties is concerned, I don’t care much for parties anyway!'”

dotoasd
Nicholson with her daughter, Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1941, p.55, accessed Newspaper.com.

Despite criticism, Nicholson proved steadfast in her political convictions and was perceived of as a “force” by many observers; the Indianapolis Star proclaimed “Mrs. Nicholson yesterday wore a modish dark red velvet dress and smoked cigarettes frequently during the proceedings, and if any of her fellow legislators didn’t like it, it was just too bad. It was a pleasure to watch her.” When her term ended, the tenacious legislator ran for reelection, but lost because the political climate swung in favor of the Republican Party. However, this was far from the end of her public service.

Check back for Part II to learn about her WPA work alongside Ross Lockridge Sr.; visit with Eleanor Roosevelt; tiresome efforts to find housing for African American soldiers in Indianapolis who had been turned away; and observations about the Red Scare in local politics.

*The Nicholsons were not Jewish. It is likely that the author of the letter used the word “Jew” as a derogatory term for progressives.

From Drunkometer to Breathalyzer: How Indiana Scientists Crusaded Against Drunk Driving

agnld
Image courtesy of Gizmodo.

Wired magazine aptly noted “Inebriation is apparently a subject of some interest in Indiana.” Indeed, one of the greatest deterrents against drunk driving has roots with Indiana University School of Medicine’s professor Dr. Rolla N. Harger. The professor taught biochemistry and toxicology from 1922-1960 and headed the school’s department of biochemistry and pharmacology from 1933-1956. Harger began developing the first successful breath-testing instrument in the 1930s, descriptively dubbing it the Drunkometer. Although a somewhat bulky device, it proved innovative in the rapid detection of alcohol consumption. After subjects breathed into a balloon, a chemical solution was applied to the air, darkening in color according to the amount of alcohol detected.

Wired elaborated that:

From there, the level of alcohol in the person’s bloodstream was estimated using a mathematical formula, which Harger also developed. As he pushed for his patent, Harger also pushed to outlaw drunk driving, which, in the wake of Prohibition’s end, was becoming more than a nuisance.

harger
Harger displaying his Drunkometer, image courtesy of IUPUI Library, Digital Collections.

Harger’s Drunkometer was patented in 1936 and Indianapolis police successfully tested the device on New Years Eve of 1938. Harger’s crusade against inebriated drivers didn’t end there. He served as a member of a subcommittee of the National Safety Council that drafted an act to use chemical tests as evidence of impaired driving. The subcommittee also established limits for motorist alcohol consumption, which went into effect nationally.

drunk diagram
Diagram of the Drunkometer, image courtesy of Huffington Post.

Harger’s invention was foundational to the Breathalyzer, invented by Hoosier Robert F. Borkenstein. Born on August 31, 1912, Borkenstein grew up in Fort Wayne. He entered the work force as a photographic technician. During the early 1930s he developed a color printing process, which was received favorably by the commercial market.

In 1936, Borkenstein took a position with the Indiana State Police and became involved with the early research and development of lie detector technology. Eventually this work led to his being named captain and head of laboratory services.  It was then that he noticed the importance of the Drunkometer technology, but also recognized the difficulty in operating it effectively in the field.

Borkenstein enrolled at IU and began his collaboration with Dr. Harger in advancing the Drunkometer. By 1954, Borkenstein independently invented a more practical, user-friendly means of detecting Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), now known as the Breathalyzer. His ingenuity served him well and when he had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1958 from IU, Borkenstein was named a professor in the school’s Department of Forensic Studies that same year. When IU formed its department of Police Administration he was named its chairman.

bork
Borkenstein working on his Breathalyzer prototype, image courtesy of IU Archives blog.

The Breathalyzer revolutionized law enforcement’s efforts to measure alcohol in the blood when investigating an accident and suspecting drink as the culprit. By exhaling, breath alcohol vapors can be proportionally measured. The Breathalyzer instrument can calculate the proportion of alcohol in the blood.

When Borkenstein was elected to the National Safety Council’s Safety and Health Hall of Fame International in 1988, the Council noted that,

“This technological innovation enabled traffic enforcement authorities to determine and quantify blood alcohol concentrations with sufficient accuracy to meet the demands of legal evidence.”

hasdv
The instruments not only confirmed driver inebriation, but exonerated those falsely accused, Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, November 17, 1954, courtesy of NewspaperArchive.com.

Borkenstein continued to invent devices that could combat drunk driving by determining BAC. According to an IU Archives blog post, in 1970 he “introduced a coin-operated Breathalyzer that could be installed in cocktail lounges. For 25 cents, a person could blow into a straw that popped out of the machine.” Depending on the BAC, the machine would provide users with the messages: “Be a safe driver,” “Be a good walker,” or “You’re a passenger.”

iwatch
The pioneering work of Harger and Borkenstein set the precedent for practical BAC detection, now in such convenient formats as Apple Watches. Image courtesy of Oddity Mall.

Borkenstein devoted his life’s work to prohibiting drunk driving, serving  president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Services, as well as the International Committee on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety and consultant to the President’s Task Force on Highway Safety. He supervised a 1981 liquor sturdy which revealed that driving with less than two ounces of alcohol prove less dangerous than a driver who abstained. The study concluded that a little alcohol could possibly assist a driver by relaxing him behind the wheel.

Borkenstein retired from IU professorship in the late 1980s. According to the Chicago Tribune, he “helped launch a class on alcohol and highway safety that became a requirement for law-enforcement personnel and forensic specialists in many jurisdictions. The university calls it the Borkenstein Course.” Despite his 1981 study, Borkenstein advocated abstinence of any drink prior to driving, before he died in Bloomington on August 15, 2002.

Dr. Harvey “Old Borax” Wiley and His Poison Squad

hwwiley-02
Harvey Washington Wiley, M.D. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early Pure Food movement is Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle. However, Hoosier Harvey Wiley’s work in the field was already at its apex when Sinclair’s exposé was released. When Dr. Wiley started his career in the mid- to late-19th century, the production of processed foods in the US was on the rise due to the increasing number of urban dwellers unable to produce their own fresh food. With little to no federal regulation in this manufacturing, food adulteration was rampant. Dr. Wiley made it his mission prove the importance of food regulation. With the help of a group of men known as the Poison Squad, he did just that.

Harvey Washington Wiley was born on a small farmstead near Kent, Indiana on October 18, 1844. He attended Hanover College from 1863-1867, with the exception of a few months in 1864 when he served in Company I of 137th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. After graduating in 1867, Wiley moved to Indianapolis and began teaching at Butler University while earning his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Indiana. It was in 1874 that Dr. Wiley began his work as a chemist at Purdue University, where he developed an interest in adulterated food. Wiley argued that mass-produced food, as opposed to food produced locally in small quantities, contained harmful additives and preservatives and misled consumers about what they were actually eating. In the coming decades, Wiley would prove that this theory was correct and serve as one of the public faces of the pure food movement. As a 1917 advertisement in The (New York) Sun put it:

“Dr. Wiley it was who, at Washington, first roused the country to an appreciation of purity and wholesomeness in foods. He has been the one conspicuous figure in food betterment and food conservation in the present generation.”

In 1883, Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. While serving in this capacity, Wiley made the establishment of federal standards of food, beverages, and medication his priority. To this end, governmental testing of food, beverages, and ingredients began in 1902. The most famous of these tests were the “hygienic table trials,” better known by the name given to them by the media: “The Poison Squad.”

The Poison Squad
The “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious,” who made up the Poison Squad, sit six to a table. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

During these trials, “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious” were fed and boarded in the basement of the Agricultural Department building in Washington D.C. Before each meal the men would strip and be weighed, any alteration in their condition being noted. At any one time, six of the group would be fed wholesome, unadulterated food. The other six were fed food laced with commonly used additives such as borax and formaldehyde. Every two weeks, the two groups would be switched. While the position of poison squad member may sound like it would be a hard one to fill, volunteers were lining up to participate in the tests, even writing letters such as the following to Dr. Wiley:

Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

The experiments commenced in November of 1902 and by Christmas, spirits among the Squad members were low. According to a Washington Post article from December 26,

“The borax diet is beginning to show its effect on Dr. Wiley’s government-fed boarders at the Bureau of Chemistry, and last night when the official weights were taken just before the Christmas dinner the six guests who are taking the chemical course showed a slight decrease in avoirdupois . . . To have lost flesh on Christmas Day, when probably everybody else in Washington gained more or less from feasting, was regarded by the boarders themselves as doubly significant.”

A look at the “unprinted and unofficial menu” from the Christmas meal, also printed in the Post, sheds some light on what may have given the boarders pause in their Christmas feasting.

Image courtesy of The Washington Post: Dec 26, 1902; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. 2. 

Much of the information reported by the press during this time came from the members of the squad themselves, until “Old Borax” as Wiley came to be known, issued a gag-order in order to preserve the sanctity of the scientific studies happening. Despite the order, public interest had been peaked and tongues and pens wagged around the country. As one Columbia University scholar put it, “Supreme County justices could be heard jesting about the Squad in public, and even minstrel shows got in on the act.” There were even poems and songs written about the trials.

If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute,
Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit.
He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel,
They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped,
For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe;
For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.

They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.
That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane.
Next week he’ll give them moth balls,
a LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.

-Lew Dockstade, “They’ll Never Look the Same”

At the close of the Borax trials in 1903, Wiley began cultivating relationships with some journalists, perhaps in hopes of turning the reports from jovial, and sometimes untrue, conjectures to something more closely resembling the serious work being done.

Along with borax and formaldehyde, the effects of salicylic acid, saccharin, sodium benzoate and copper salts were all studied during the Hygienic Table Trials. The reports generated during the Hygienic Table Trials and the media coverage that followed set the stage for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the same year in which the trials were concluded. According to the FDA, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also known as The Wiley Act, serves the purpose of “preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein.”

By requiring companies to clearly indicate what their products contained and setting standards for the labeling and packaging of food and drugs, the Act helped consumers make informed decisions about products that could affect their health. While controversies over additives and government regulations continue to this day, Dr. Harvey Wiley and his Poison Squad played a major role in making the food on our tables safe to eat.

Check out our historical marker and corresponding review report to learn
more about Wiley.                            marker picLearn about the history of public health in Indiana and Wiley’s contributions with our publication The Indiana Historian.

Memorial Day Spotlight: Eliza “Mother” George

This post was adapted from a February 2007 article in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi.”

finalsdfsdf

Some of us recall Decoration Day, when we tended the graves of soldiers, sailors, and our families’ burial places. The holiday was established to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic. On May 5th of that year, Logan declared in General Order No. 11 that, among other directives, the 30th of May, 1868, was to be designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.

Indiana’s Eliza Hamilton George was among those lost in the Civil War. Born in Bridgeport, Vermont, in 1808, she married W. L. George before coming to Fort Wayne, Indiana sometime prior to 1850. In that year, one of her daughters, also named Eliza, married another young newcomer to the city, Sion Bass, who had arrived from Kentucky in 1849. Sion Bass joined the army in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War and helped to organize the 30th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers; he was chosen to be its first commander. At the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, Sion was killed leading a charge of his regiment against Confederate lines.

button
Official seal of the United States Sanitary Commission, image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

The loss of Eliza’s son-in-law and the news of the terrible suffering of Union soldiers everywhere made a great impression on Mrs. George. Early in 1863, at 54 years of age, she applied for duty in the Sanitary Commission, the forerunner of the Army Nurse Corps. Her value as a nurse was quickly realized in the rapidly overflowing hospitals in Memphis, her first duty station. Here she soon was commended enthusiastically by those for whom she worked, from the beleaguered doctors in the field to Indiana’s Governor Oliver P. Morton. Her special care of the soldiers caught the imagination of the Indiana press as well.

An Indianapolis newspaper, for example, told of the occasion she sat for twenty hours with a young frightened soldier, holding ice against his bleeding wound. Whenever she tried to have some one relieve her, the boy so painfully begged her to stay that, “she forgot her own weariness and applied the ice again.” When shells were falling in and around the hospital tent, she picked up the wounded and, one by one, in the face of enemy fire carried them in her arms to safety.

Eliza described her account of stepping off the hospital train in Kingston, Georgia, writing:

We arrived to witness one of the saddest sights I ever witnessed. An ambulance train brought in 1200 wounded men. A large number were slightly wounded or at least in hands and feet, and some with two fingers carried away, some through the hand, etc. There were 75 with amputated legs and arms some wounded in the head, in feet, in every form and manner.

nurse pic
Nurse Annie Bell with patients in Tennessee after the Battle of Nashville, circa 1864. Mother George would have provided similar service to wounded soldiers. Image courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center.

Eliza also lamented the plight of women on the Civil War home front, writing on December 8, 1864:

The wind is whistling round the house, the cannon booming in the distance and my heart is aching for the houseless, homeless, destitute women whose husbands are in the Union Army, fighting for their country’s life. Oh, my children, turn your thoughts away from every vain and superficial wish, that you may have at least a mite to give to the needy. Suffering is no name to apply to the many I see destitute of home and place to lay their head. You know how like a cool draught of water to a thirsty soul, is a letter to me from home; and you know I would write if I could but my time is not my own.

Near the end of the war, “Mother” George – as she had come to be called affectionately by the soldiers – was assigned to the army hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina. There, at the same time, came nearly eleven thousand newly freed Union prisoners of war. Mother George gave herself completely to relieve the suffering of these men, but in an outbreak of typhoid among the troops, the exhausted Mother George contracted the disease and died on May 9, 1865, scarcely a month after the end of the war.

Her body was brought back to Fort Wayne where she was buried with full military honors in Lindenwood Cemetery, the only woman to have been so honored there. Later that same year, the Indiana Sanitary Commission and the Fort Wayne Ladies Aid erected a monument in her memory in the cemetery. A weathered granite shaft with the simple inscription on its face that reads, “Mrs. George” still stands in a triangular space near her actual grave site across the way in the Col. Sion S. Bass family plot. Additionally, in 1965 the Fort Wayne Civil War Round Table placed a marker near the site of her first home in Fort Wayne.

  monument  mother markr

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day, commemorating all fallen men and women who served in the Armed Forces. This Memorial Day we will think of Mother George, who died unaware of her great fame or a legacy that placed her among the important women contributors of the Civil War.

Check out IHB’s markers commemorating Civil War hospitals and nurses. Learn how Indiana Civil War surgeon John Shaw Billings revolutionized medicine due, in part, to his field experience.

John Shaw Billings: “The Many Lives he Has Led”

See Part I for biographical information about John Shaw Billings, his experience as a Civil War surgeon, and his innovatory Surgeon-General library’s Index Catalogue.

clearing hospital
Ground being cleared for Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1877, photo courtesy of Flickr’s Johns Hopkins Medical Archive’s photostream.

John Shaw Billings’s hospital designs, which limited the spread of disease, and his education of the public about hygiene are more relevant than ever, considering the CDC’s recent struggle to combat the spread of Ebola and Enterovirus D68. Despite modern technology, educating the public about methods of contagion and effectively quarantining the ill remains an issue. We have, in large part, Billings (of Allensville, Indiana) to thank for many of the basic preventive measures in hospitals, particularly with the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The Civil War revolutionized the American medical system, as it required personnel to treat large numbers of severely wounded soldiers in rapid fashion. In addition to treatment problems, such as preventing infection, personnel struggled with administrative issues like locating and communicating with medical staff and procuring supplies. Adapting to these obstacles informed medical treatment in the post-war public health sphere, as Billings confirmed in an address:

The war of 1861-1865, and the great influx of immigrants . . . taught us how to build and manage hospitals, so as to greatly lessen the evils which has previously been connected with them, and it also made the great mass of the people familiar with the appearance of, and work in, hospitals, as they had never been before.

His own experience as a Civil War surgeon and his “novel approach” to hospital administration appealed to the trustees of the Johns Hopkins’ fund, tasked with establishing a hospital for the “indigent sick.” After inviting five medical professionals to submit plans for the hospital, they selected Billings’s design in 1876. In their article, A. McGehee Harvey and Susan L. Abrams noted that it “was Billings the man, rather than his proposal” that convinced the trustees to appoint him to the task, as he was extremely knowledgeable about medical education, hygiene, and the “philosophical underpinnings” of hospital construction.

opening
Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1889, the year of its opening. Photo courtesy of Flickr’s Johns Hopkins Medical Archive’s photostream.
new
Johns Hopkins Hospital, 2013, courtesy of ABC News.

Billings’s essay to the trustees reflected his revolutionary ideas about medical treatment and education, asserting that a hospital should not only treat patients, but educate medical professionals. In that period, requirements to receive one’s medical degree were low and medical education often failed to adequately prepare students to practice medicine. Billings sought to change this by wedding the hospital to the university, providing students with hands-on experience. He also sought to raise standards of medical education, so that a diploma ensured the physician could “learn to think and investigate for himself.”

Under Billings’s design, the Johns Hopkins Hospital opened in 1889 and included a training school for nurses, a pathological laboratory for experimental research, and connected to a building with a teaching amphitheatre. In an address at the opening of the hospital, Billings stated that with the hospital he hoped to produce “investigators as well as practitioners” by having physicians “issue papers and reports giving accounts of advances in, and of new methods of acquiring knowledge, obtained in its wards and laboratories, and that thus all scientific men and all physicians shall share in the benefits of the work actually down within these walls.”

Johns Hopkins Hospital raised the standards of medical education, treatment and sanitation, and was modeled by other hospitals. By 1894, The (Washington D.C.) Evening Star dubbed Billings the “foremost authority in the country in municipal hygiene and medical literature.” In addition to revolutionizing hospital administration and design, Billings was an early advocate of what is referred to today as “bedside manner.” In his 1895 Suggestions to Hospitals and Asylum Visitors, he asked readers to consider

Is a spirit of kindness and gentleness apparent in the place? . . . Is the charitable work of the hospital performed in a charitable way? Do the physicians and nurses display that enthusiasm and esprit due corps which are essential to good hospital work?

NYPL old
New York Public Library Central Building. Image courtesy of “A Digitized History of the New York Public Library,” NYPL.org.

Billings’s accomplishments were not relegated to hospitals. In 1896 Billings served as the first director of the New York Public Library (serving until his death in 1913), expanding its collections “without parallel.” He publicly recognized NYPL female employees and at a Women’s University Club meeting lamented that “most of the library work is done by women, and done splendidly, and it is a shame that they are not better paid.” Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie solicited Billings’s help with the establishment of a system of branch libraries in New York City and referred to Billings on various educational matters. Additionally, Billings convinced Carnegie to donate millions of dollars to public libraries throughout the United States.

original sketch
Billings’s original sketch of the NYPL, 1897 (above). Preliminary plan of the NYPL (below). Image courtesy of “A Digitized History of the New York Public Library,” NYPL.org.

Billings also worked with the U.S. Census from 1880 to 1910 to develop vital statistics. He sought to record census data on cards using a hole punch system, which would allow the data to be counted mechanically. Herman Hollerith applied Billings’s concept, devising “‘electrical counting and integrating machines’” employed by the U.S. Census.

Billings passed away March 11, 1913 and was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. At a meeting to honor Billings’s life at the Stuart Gallery of the New York Public Library, Andrew Carnegie contended of Billings “by his faithful administration of the great tasks committed to him he left the world better than he found it. I never knew a man of whom I could more safely say that.” The Evening Mail summarized the sentiments of many, including the author of this post, stating

“One gasps at the many lives he has led, the many appointments he has filled, and his gigantic work among libraries and hospitals.”

For more about Billings’s pioneering work, as well as his many other accomplishments, see the corresponding Historical Marker Review and the National Medical Library’s extensive John Shaw Billings Bibliography.

Interested in historic hospitals and medical advancements? Stay tuned for our forthcoming marker about Central State Hospital, an Indianapolis mental health facility that opened in 1848 and built a groundbreaking pathology lab in 1896.

John Shaw Billings: “I Could Lie Down and Sleep for Sixteen Hours without Stopping”

John Shaw Billings portrait, n.d. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

We all know those people, who accomplish more in one hour than we do all week, who redefine “industrious” and excel at everything they try. Indiana native John Shaw Billings was the archetype, a visionary with seemingly infinite energy who revolutionized medical and bibliographical practices that endure into the 21st century. Billings stands among several Hoosiers who are profoundly influential, yet under recognized, including the inventor of the television Philo T. Farnsworth and creator of one of America’s first automobiles Elwood Haynes.

Billings was born April 12, 1838 in Allensville, Indiana; his family moved to the East Coast briefly in 1841 and returned in 1848. Ambitious from a young age, Billings made a deal with his father that, in exchange for forfeiting inherited property, his father would fund his college education. At the age of 14 and after intensive study, he passed the entrance exam for  Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he incessantly studied philosophy and theology at the college library. After earning his B.A., he entered the Medical College of Ohio at Cincinnati in 1858, where he undertook his thesis “The Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy” that would later inform his monumental bibliographical endeavors.

John Shaw Billings : an autobiographical fragment 1905 (facsimile copy of the original manuscript), courtesy of Archive.org.

Shortly after graduation, Billings’s training coincided with the start of the American Civil War, providing him with opportunities to apply his medical knowledge. In 1861, Billings traveled to Washington, D.C. and became a contract-surgeon with the military. Soon thereafter he was appointed assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, working at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. While there, his “extraordinary manual skill and boldness in dealing with difficult cases attracted the attention of the surgeon-general,” and he was put in charge of Cliffburne Hospital near Georgetown.

As a Civil War surgeon at several prominent battles–including the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg–Billings was tasked with establishing field hospitals, operating and treating wounded soldiers for hours while under fire, and transporting waves of injured soldiers from battle sites with limited equipment. Billings lamented the trials of his work, writing to his wife about the Battle of Gettysburg:

“I am utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. I have been operating night and day, and am still hard at work. I have been left in charge of 700 wounded, and have got my hands full. Our division lost terribly, over 30 per cent were killed and wounded. I had my left ear just touched with a ball . . . I am covered with blood, and am tired out almost completely, and can only say that I could lie down and sleep for sixteen hours without stopping. I have been operating all day long, and have got the chief part of the work done in a satisfactory manner.”

After the battle, Billings understandably left field work for a brief period due to “nervous tension and physical exhaustion.” In August 1864, Billings helped edit field reports that became the monumental The Medical and Surgical History of the War and eventually transferred to the Surgeon-General’s Office, where he remained until retirement in 1895.

billings in army
Albumen silver print, ca.1862, courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries blog.

As the war concluded, hospitals submitted surplus operating funds to the Surgeon-General’s Office; these funds were given to Billings to build up the Surgeon-General’s library, which later became the National Library of Medicine. Billings expanded the collection by writing to editors, librarians, physicians, and State Department officials requesting book donations, eventually increasing its holdings from 600 entries in 1865 to 50,000 by 1873. The scope of the collection soon required a guide to help researchers locate desired publications. Billings understood firsthand the difficulty of locating such sources, as his thesis research required intensive time, labor, and travel to libraries in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

With the assistance of Dr. Robert Fletcher, Billings devised a catalogue for the Surgeon-General library’s holdings, publishing the first volume of the Surgeon General’s Medical Index Catalogue in 1880. He hoped it “would spare medical teachers and writers the drudgery of consulting ten thousand or more different indexes or of turning over the leaves of as many volumes to find the dozen or so references of which they might be in search.” As new medical materials were published, Billings struggled to keep the Catalogue current, so he devised the Index Medicus, a monthly supplement that focused on new and select publications. The Index Medicus was the forerunner to the medical databases MEDLINE and PubMed.

library
Surgeon General’s Library, ca. 1890. Billings sits at center table, courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Prior to Billings’s systematic efforts to compile and organize medical literature, researchers and physicians had few methods to effectively locate sources, including medical studies and reports on operations. The Index Catalogue and Medicus served as a nearly comprehensive clearinghouse of medical literature, both current and historical, whose contents could aid in medical education and diagnoses. Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg and Patricia E. Gallagher summarize the magnitude of Billings’s efforts in “The Great Contribution,” contending that “with only ink and index cards, they [Billings and Fletcher] tamed an enormous and complex technical literature in virtually every written language on the planet” and that the indices “paved the way for the great databases that now are the primary underpinnings for the medical research of the future.”

Billings’s efforts at the Surgeon-General’s library served as the beginning of his library work, which would one day lead him to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For more information on Billings’s Civil War activities and establishment of the Surgeon-General’s library and corresponding Index Catalogue, see the Historical Marker Review.

Check back for Part II: “A New Era of Hospital Construction” about Billings’s involvement in the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital and how it revolutionized medical treatment and education.