Otis R. Bowen, who oversaw the national response to the growing AIDS crisis as the first physician to lead the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), died on Saturday, May 4, at the age of 95.
Governor Mike Pence of Indiana issued a statement on Sunday announcing that Bowen had died the day before at a nursing home in Donaldson, Indiana, of an undisclosed cause.
Born on February 26, 1918, Bowen began his medical career as a small-town family doctor in Bremen, Indiana, in the 1940s. He was first elected to office in 1952 as a coroner in Marshall County, and made his way up the ranks of the Indiana legislature over the next two decades. He successfully ran for governor of Indiana in 1972 as a Republican, and became the first Indiana governor to serve a second term in over a century.
After retiring from politics, Bowen had been teaching at Indiana University Medical School for several years when President Ronald Reagan appointed him secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in 1985, as HIV/AIDS was rapidly developing into a national health epidemic.
Bowen believed that his greatest achievement as HHS secretary was spearheading the first major expansion of Medicare, according to the Washington Post, even though a key provision of that 1988 bill, which expanded health insurance coverage to the elderly for catastrophic illnesses, was repealed by Congress the next year.
Bowen's lasting national legacy, however, was his response to the grave threat of the HIV/AIDS crisis from 1985 to 1989, along with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The Reagan administration faced heated criticism for not confronting the AIDS epidemic aggressively enough in its early years. Koop and Bowen picked up some of the slack by emphasizing public education about condoms and safe sex, in efforts like mailing pamphlets about how to avoid contracting HIV to over 100 million American households.
While Bowen was not as outspoken an AIDS advocate as Koop, the New York Times recalled that he explicitly warned Americans about the serious risk of the virus to heterosexuals, not just gay men, threatening that historical pandemics like the black plague and smallpox would "pale by comparison" with AIDS if the public did not take necessary precautions.
Dr. Bowen's comment in a 1987 press conference became a truism in the safer-sex movement that developed from the HIV/AIDS crisis: "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."