The Stuff of Legend

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk


Louis Richard Douglas during his last day at the Indiana Forensic & Health Sciences Laboratories.

Celebrating a 65-year career in health sciences

On a windy October afternoon in Indianapolis, workers from the Indiana Forensic & Health Sciences Laboratories and Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) lined the hallway of the employee entrance in anxious excitement.

An institution at the building just off 16th and Martin Luther King Jr. streets was about to walk down that hall to the parking lot for the final time after 65 years of employment. Louis Richard Douglas, 89, retired on Oct. 19, 2012.

To say that the ISDH labs will be different without Douglas’ presence — his wisdom, spirituality and his whistling while walking from lab to lab — is an understatement.

“He was very in-tune with his work,” says Mardene Wade, who worked with Douglas for about three years in the Food and Microbiology Lab. “We miss his whistle already. Ever since I knew him, you could always tell when he was around the corner.”

To say that the labs — and society — have changed since his arrival at the serology lab in 1947 is an even bigger understatement.

Science, music and Purdue

An Indianapolis native, Douglas was already a gifted science student, a baseball fanatic and classical musician before he enrolled at Purdue University in 1941. He had taken every science class available at Crispus Attucks High School, allowing only music classes so he could keep up with his cello playing in his schedule.

“I wanted to be a scientist. I didn’t have any other name for it or any specific idea for it,” Douglas laughs.

While some friends went to Indiana University, Douglas and four classmates were lured to Purdue. Even 70 years ago, Purdue’s reputation in science was farreaching. But it was the gridiron that always kept Purdue in the back of Douglas’ mind.

“I always heard Purdue had very fine schools of science and engineering,” Douglas says, “but I also had this connection: Purdue played Notre Dame one year (1939) and played them tough. ‘I like that school. They almost beat Notre Dame.’ Purdue lost (3-0) but man they played a good game. Those kinds of things influenced you. My parents asked me where I wanted to go and Purdue was the first thing I said.“

Douglas’ memories of Purdue and his early career are sharp and finely detailed. But many of those details do not paint a rosy picture. Douglas was met with discrimination from the very start at Purdue.

“We couldn’t live on campus. Cary Hall was not available to us. I stayed across the river in Lafayette my freshman year. I had to take the bus every morning,” says
Douglas, who was allowed to live on campus in “International Hall” for his sophomore
year. “When Purdue would play Indiana in football, my friends and I would cheer for Indiana because they had black players and Purdue did not.”

He remembers a chemistry class where seating was in alphabetical order. His last name was right behind a white female student’s. When the professor saw the seating chart, he made up a fake student’s name so that a desk would be in between Douglas and the young woman.

Douglas’ strength and determination as well as the eruption of World War II broke some barriers. During his first semester, the campus ROTC office would not let him join
but in 1942, African Americans started to be allowed into the program.

Douglas remembers hearing the radio reports of the Pearl Harbor attack.

“My first year was when the war started — World War II,” Douglas says. “I went home that Sunday, had some books and was getting ready to study for the finals when I heard this radio broadcast about the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor.”

While Douglas soaked up more and more science knowledge in his chemistry, physics, math and biology classes — and worked hard through language arts classes like German, English and composition — he still found time to play cello in the Purdue Orchestra, when it was active.

“My mother was a music teacher but none of us had had any private lessons on our instrument. We just had the willingness to play,” Douglas says.

At the end of his junior year at Purdue, fighting overseas was dwindling, but World War II still interrupted Douglas’ studies. He was drafted into the Army and served in 1945 and 1946 while stationed in India. There, Douglas says, he encountered more discrimination.

Douglas returned to Purdue campus to finish his senior year and to be a part of the 1947 graduating class. He was one of only two black students to graduate in that class.

Forging a 65-year career

From Purdue, Douglas joined the Indiana State Board of Health (ISBH) Laboratories. He would achieve the longest tenure in Indiana State Department of Health and State employment history.

After some years in serology working on tests for sexually transmitted diseases, Douglas was put to work in the rabies lab as well, working with brain tissue of animals suspected of carrying the virus. In the 1950s, there wasn’t as much education as now on rabies and there were a lot more packs of wild dogs running through Indianapolis — before leash laws and required immunizations
for pet dogs. Bat rabies kept Douglas busy later in his work.

“I was really isolated in that lab. They didn’t want anyone going in there because rabies was so dangerous,” Douglas says. “They later learned that the rabies virus doesn’t travel in the air. Light kills that organism. It’s dangerous only if you’re bitten.”

Douglas also worked in the food lab, and then helped deliver samples to Indiana Forensic & Health Sciences’ various labs. The last assignment allowed him to meet more people around the IFHS building, endearing himself to them in the process.

A fond farewell

The October farewell in the employee hallway of the IFHS building was typical Douglas. All of his co-workers were alerted via email to meet in the hallway. There were no worries of the 89-year-old intercepting the surprise, as “he doesn’t read email,” laughed one coworker in the crowded hallway.

Dressed dapperly in a riding cap, sweater vest and a Purdue-centric black and gold necktie, Douglas beamed when he saw his co-workers waiting for him. He slapped and shook hands with all of them and he took home a pumpkin with his face carved on it. The rendering had his glasses, mustache and ISDH baseball cap he would wear in the labs. Then without too many words, he went
to his blue Chrysler Sebring convertible and drove home.

Though 65 years is a long, long time to work for one office, Douglas wishes it could have been for longer.

“I had to get myself ready for this for a couple of months,” he says. “It’s not easy. Most people are happy to retire but I’m not really happy about it. My main focus was do the work I was getting paid to do.

“I like repetition. It wasn’t my nature to change jobs. Most people stay two years and they’re off. It just seemed like the right thing for me to do is stay. I just wanted to.”


Douglas' Purdue University class of 1947 yearbook. He was one of only two black students to graduate that year,