By Nelson Price, author of Indiana Legends
Let’s hope the health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are not forgotten. Nearly 200 years ago, when an epidemic swept through (and nearly wiped out) the brand new city of Indianapolis, a tireless physician was hailed as a hero — yet who remembers Dr. Isaac Coe today?
Doc Coe is not among the more than 160 famous Hoosiers from all walks of life – ranging from frontier explorers to astronauts, Olympic athletes, musicians and movie stars – featured in my book Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman. That’s because the notables in the book’s profiles and vignettes were selected on the basis of their fame (or, in the case of a few like John Dillinger, their infamy), and Doc Coe long ago stopped being a household name in the city that he helped save.
As Indianapolis enters its Bicentennial era – amid a health crisis that often seems overwhelming – I’ve been doing my best to bring renewed attention to Doc Coc and the malaria epidemic of 1821. A New Jersey native who was the second physician to arrive in Indianapolis, he came just a few months before the epidemic that impacted almost every family in the wilderness town being created in mosquito-filled marshlands as the state’s new capital.
The doctor left his home office – it was located on what later was called Monument Circle – to treat malaria victims, working tirelessly to nurse those he could help recover. The epidemic killed at least 72 residents of the frontier town; more than 25 of the children who died were buried in Plague Cemetery, the city’s first graveyard. (A memorial plaque is on the approximate site of the cemetery; ironically, the site was near today’s classroom buildings for medical students on the IUPUI campus.)
During the shut-down of so many endeavors with the current epidemic, I have continued to host “Hoosier History Live”, a radio show on WICR-FM (88.7) that explores all aspects of our state’s heritage. I’ve devoted parts of several shows to Doc Coe and the forgotten malaria epidemic that nearly ended the city at the get-go. In addition to the pioneers who succumbed, dozens more were so terrified that they packed up and left, moving to settlements they felt were safer.
Doc Coe, for his part, scolded state leaders for choosing a swampy site for the new state capital merely because surveyors had determined it was Indiana’s geographic center. Blaming the malaria on “vapors” from the swamps, Doc Coe didn’t use the terminology of modern physicians and medical historians, who have more sophisticated explanations for the 1821 epidemic. But they say the pioneer doctor was on the right track in pointing to the ill-advised setting for the new city as a major factor.
In addition to sharing his story on the radio show, I have devoted some “shut-in time” to writing an essay about the 1821 epidemic and Doc Coe for a book that will be published in connection with the Bicentennial era of my hometown.
By the way, when Indianapolis residents celebrated the city’s Centennial 100 years ago, they had not yet forgotten Doc Coe and the devastating malaria epidemic. Pageants and parades in 1920 featured costumed re-enactors depicting the folk hero physician.
There even was a costumed character billed in brochures as “Mosquito”.