Otis R. Bowen, former Indiana governor and HHS secretary, dies at 95

May 6, 2013

Otis R. Bowen, a small-town doctor who served two terms as governor of Indiana and later led efforts to respond to the AIDS crisis as the first physician to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, died May 4 at a nursing home in Donaldson, Ind. He was 95.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) announced the death in a statement. The cause was not disclosed.

In December 1985, Dr. Bowen replaced Margaret M. Heckler as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of health and human services. The low-key Dr. Bowen, a Republican, was known for working with members of both parties and often said his medical experience allowed him “to approach emergencies and problems with a certain amount of calmness and common sense.”

He believed his greatest accomplishment at HHS was engineering the first major expansion of Medicare, a 1988 bill providing coverage to the elderly for catastrophic illnesses. The provision was repealed by Congress a year later.

He may have had more long-term success in confronting one of the most serious health problems of the 1980s, the fast-growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS. Along with his deputy, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who died in February, Dr. Bowen led public education efforts about HIV/AIDS and sent pamphlets about how to avoid contracting the virus to more than 100 million households nationwide.


Otis Bowen in December 1985. (James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post)

A comment by Dr. Bowen at a news conference in 1987 became an oft-repeated statement in the medical struggle against HIV/AIDS: “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.”

Otis Ray Bowen was born Feb. 26, 1918, near Rochester, Ind. His father was a teacher.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Indiana University in 1939, Dr. Bowen graduated from the university’s medical school in 1942. He served in the Army Medical Corps in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, he set up a family practice in Bremen, a small town in northern Indiana. He once sent a questionnaire to his patients asking whether they wanted to be informed if they had cancer or — as was often the practice at the time — kept in the dark. Much to his surprise, 96 percent said they wanted to know the truth.

Dr. Bowen was elected county coroner in 1952, then was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1956. Two years later, he lost a reelection bid by four votes, but he was returned to office in 1960.

Dr. Bowen was considered an effective legislator and eventually became speaker of the Indiana House despite being, by his own admission, a soporific speechmaker.

“The only way to stay awake through an Otis Bowen speech,” Dr. Bowen once said, “is to give it.”

He was elected governor in 1972. Four years later, after approval of a state constitutional amendment allowing governors to serve more than one term, he became the first Indiana governor in more than a century to be reelected.

He led efforts to improve state parks, establish a statewide system of emergency medical care and limit property-tax increases. He also helped quell labor unrest — sometimes by calling out the National Guard. But his signature achievement as governor drew from his experience as a doctor who had delivered more than 3,000 babies.

In 1975, he signed a bill that limited malpractice awards against physicians to $500,000 apiece, with no doctor personally responsible for paying more than $100,000 in damages. Intended to reduce insurance costs and ease the financial burden on doctors, the law was considered a landmark at the time.

During his second term as governor, Dr. Bowen quietly cared for his ailing wife, the former Elizabeth Steinman, who had multiple myeloma, or bone-marrow cancer. She died in January 1981 after 41 years of marriage.

In a speech at a medical convention that year, Dr. Bowen revealed that he had given his dying wife painkillers that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. One, which was derived from marijuana, “worked like magic,” he told The Washington Post.

Dr. Bowen was teaching at Indiana University when he was nominated to be HHS secretary. Some conservatives opposed him because of his support of family planning and living wills. At the time, some people considered living wills — advance directives for end-of-life medical care that are now in widespread use — a step toward euthanasia.

Nonetheless, Dr. Bowen won Senate approval by a vote of 93 to 2.

He retired to Indiana in 1989, when Reagan’s second term ended.

In 1981, Dr. Bowen married Rose May Hochstetler, a widow with four children. She died in 1991.

Survivors include his third wife, Carol Hahn Mikesell; four children from his first marriage; and six stepchildren.

Dr. Bowen always kept his medical license up to date and, even as governor and HHS secretary, had a prescription pad with him at all times. He sometimes issued impromptu prescriptions to aides or journalists suffering from colds or sore throats.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.