Nowhere has the contribution of nineteenth century German immigrants to life in Indianapolis been more important than in the development of research and treatment in psychiatry. The story of Dr. George Edenharter and his dream of improving the lot of “the insane” in the 1890s Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane in Indianapolis is told in the new book I’ve co-authored with Dr. Alan Schmetzer, Dr. Edenharter’s Dream: How Science Helped the Humane Care of the Mentally Ill in Indiana 1896-2012.
Edenharter’s personal story is enlightening, reflecting the upward mobility and energy of the children of immigrants from Germany in the second half of the 19th century. His parents had come from Germany about 1848, possibly as a result of the rise of populist opposition to authoritarian governments there. His mother was from Saxony and his father, a cabinet maker, from Bavaria They lived in various towns in southwestern Ohio. Their son, George, was born in 1857 in Piqua, Ohio and completed his early education in Dayton. There he met Marion Swadener, the girl he would later marry.
In the late 1870s Edenharter’s family moved to Indianapolis. George, like his father, entered a trade, in his case cigar making at a local factory, and was a member of the cigar maker’s union. He was active in the Knights of Labor, an early organization of workers in the developing labor movement, possibly reflecting views that his parents had brought from the turmoil of Europe in mid-nineteenth century. After saving enough money for medical training, Edenharter apprenticed to a local physician and then took classes at one of the medical schools of the day. He ultimately became superintendent of Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane and established what was, in effect, the first academic psychiatric department in the country: a building that housed research laboratories and teaching facilities on the grounds of a hospital whose patients would benefit from research and the training of young physicians.
Edenharter died in 1923 after thirty years as superintendent. His successor for the next three decades was Dr. Max Bahr. Bahr’s father, a musician, had played a grand piano to entertain the Kaiser’s troops during the Franco-Prussian War. One day, he was riding a horse to another concert when an enemy bullet zinged by him. The story is that he and his wife soon moved to the United States. Max Bahr also went to medical school in Indianapolis. He later became an associate physician at the Central Hospital. Edenharter sent Bahr to Berlin for one year to study psychiatry. It was fortunate that both psychiatrists were fluent in German because Germany in the early twentieth century was a leader in psychiatric study. Both reflected positively on their native lands across the sea.