TERRE HAUTE —
Viewed through a 2013 prism, Doc Bowen’s response to the AIDS epidemic looks merely prudent, routine.
But Otis R. “Doc” Bowen, a country doctor who became a beloved Indiana governor, took over as U.S. Health and Human Services secretary in 1985. For those who have forgotten or are too young to remember that era, the American public had a limited understanding of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Paranoia, myths, lies, ignorance, bigotry and downright meanness dominated the national discourse on AIDS. It was fall 1985 when an Indiana middle school buckled under community pressure and denied a 13-year-old boy, Ryan White, admittance because he’d contracted HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — through a blood transfusion.
In the midst of that atmosphere, Bowen answered the call to join President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet and lead HHS.
Up to that point, the Reagan administration had moved slowly in combating the spread of AIDS, a lethal disease stereotypically (and incorrectly) categorized by some in those days as the “gay plague.”
Bowen, a conservative of the classic order, shifted the federal government into gear on the problem and attacked the misinformation surrounding it. Teaming with iconic Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Bowen pushed a massive public-awareness campaign. A pamphlet, crafted by Bowen and Koop, with explicit advice on avoiding the AIDS virus and explaining the use of condoms, was mailed to 107 million U.S. households. Today, such action seems practical, wise. In the mid-1980s, it was controversial and extraordinary.
Then, in a 1987 news conference, Doc uttered a piece of blunt, big-picture advice that stuck in the American conscience: “Remember, when a person has sex, they’re not just having it with that partner; they’re having it with everybody that partner had it with for the past 10 years.” A generation later, that concept drives public education efforts by health agencies concerning a gamut of sexually transmitted diseases, from HPV to HIV.
There is no way to estimate the number of lives saved by Bowen’s promotion of safe sex practices. His stand provides a lesson in character, showing wisdom under intense scrutiny and heated opposition. It reflected his background. Bowen once said he’d delivered more than 3,000 babies, as a family practitioner from tiny Bremen, Ind., and that his medical career taught him “how to approach emergencies and problems with a certain amount of calmness and common sense,” according to an Associated Press report.
Indeed, calmness and common sense were hallmarks of Bowen’s years (1973 to ’81) as one of Indiana’s most popular governors ever. The same was true during his years as the top Republican in the Indiana Legislature, Speaker of the House in the 1960s and ’70s. And, his practicality continued as the HHS secretary from 1985 to ’88.
Doc Bowen died Saturday. He’d lived 95 years. His sense of right and public good, fairness and understanding prevailed throughout those years, especially as we look back now at his leadership and voice of reason on the president’s cabinet. Bowen embodied the best possible definition of the term “Hoosier.”