Herman Bundesen

Herman Bundesen
Herman Bundesen 1925 (1).jpg
Bundesen circa 1925
President of the Chicago Board of Health
In office
1932 – August 25, 1960
MayorAnton Cermak
Frank J. Corr (acting)
Edward J. Kelly
Martin H. Kennelly
Richard J. Daley
Preceded byoffice established
Succeeded byEric Oldberg[1]
Chicago City Health Commissioner
In office
1931 – April 1960
MayorAnton Cermak
Frank J. Corr (acting)
Edward J. Kelly
Martin H. Kennelly
Richard J. Daley
Preceded byArnold H. Kegel[2]
Succeeded bySamuel Andelman
In office
February 1, 1922 – January 1928
MayorWilliam Emmett Dever
William Hale Thompson
Preceded byJohn Dill Robertson
Succeeded byArnold H. Kegel[3]
Cook County Coroner
In office
December 1928 – November 18, 1931
Preceded byOscar Wolff
Succeeded byFrank J. Walsh
Personal details
BornApril 27, 1882
Berlin, Germany
DiedAugust 25, 1960 (age 78)
Chicago, Illinois
Political partyDemocratic
ResidenceChicago, Illinois
Alma materNorthwestern University
Military service
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Battles/warsWorld War I

Herman Niels Bundesen (April 27, 1882 – August 25, 1960) was a German-American medical professional, politician, and author. He served two tenures as the chief health official of the city of Chicago, Illinois. He also was elected Cook County Coroner. In 1936, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party nomination for governor of Illinois.

Respected in his field, Bundesen was also known for his flamboyance.[4] He was seen to desire celebrity, taking many opportunities for media photo ops.[5]

In addition to his tenure as Cook County Coroner and his long service as Chicago's top health official, he also served as president of the American Public Health Association and as a senior surgeon with the United States Public Health Service.

Early life

Herman Neils Bundesen was born on April 27, 1882 in Berlin, Germany.[4] He was born to a Danish father and German mother.[4] He was brought to Chicago at a young age by his poor, widowed mother.[4]

He graduated in 1909 from Northwestern University Medical School.[4][6]

During World War I, Bundesen served in the United States Army.[4]


After the war, he returned to Chicago to practice medicine.[4]

In 1914, Bundensen came to work for the Chicago Health Department as an epidemiologist.[6][5][7] A 1921 Chicago Tribune article reported that, while in this role, Bundensen happened upon a crew dumping trash into Lake Michigan and ordered them to stop. Instead of listening, a worker pulled out a pickaxe, in response to which Bundensen produced a pistol, causing the pickaxe-wielding worker to flee.[5]

He played a role in fighting a local epidemic of typhoid.[4] Litigation occurred in 1921, which ultimately saw a writ of habeas corpus declared by the Supreme Court of Illinois, which declared that Bundesen and Health Commissioner of Chicago John Dill Robertson had been unlawfully restraining a woman, Jennie Barmore, of her liberty by preventing her from leaving her home amid suspicions that she was a carrier of typhoid.[8] Clarence Darrow had been the lawyer representing Barmore.[9] The court found that the health commissioner lacked much authority, since the city had no board of health (as authorized by the state), but instead had itself established a Department of Health. The court decided that the Chicago City Council had no authority to delegate to the Department of Health authority equivalent to what the state would allow them to grant a board of health.[9] This legal decision had the consequence of greatly weakening the legal authority of the Commissioner of Health of Chicago.[9] The top health official of Chicago would have weakened authority until the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance establishing a board of health on May 4, 1932.[9]

First tenure as Chicago City Health Commissioner

Bundensen was appointed as Health Commissioner of Chicago on February 1, 1922, after John Dill Robertson tendered his resignation.[5][10] He had been appointed because of his efforts in combatting the typhoid epidemic.[4]

Early into his tenure, he declared a battle against sexually transmitted disease, controversially advocating for city-funded venereal disease clinics and municipal distribution of prophylactics, and even making them available in brothels.[5][11] Chicago newspapers and medical journals criticized this, arguing that it promoted "immoral" behavior.[11]

Bundensen opposed the opening of the Illinois Birth Control League's first birth control clinic in 1923, which was operated by Rachelle Yarros, and largely provided wedded women with diaphragms prescribed by doctors.[12]

Early into his tenure, he was informed of a child abuser impersonating a dentist and going to public schools claiming to have been sent to examine children. He tracked the imposter to a rooming house, where a woman told him that the man was out. He threatened to arrest the woman in his place, after which she admitted the abuser was hiding in a closet. The Chicago Tribune reported the story under the headline "Dr. Bundesen Nabs Moron Who Hoaxed School".[5]

He launched an infant welfare program, emphasizing parental education. This was responsible for a drastic decrease in infant mortality in Chicago.[4][5] The city also saw a decrease in maternal mortality.[4]

He was successful in decreasing the city's rates of diphtheria.[4]

Bundensen made milk inspection a priority.[4][7] in December 1925, at his urging, the Chicago City Council defied the 1911 ban by the state government of Illinois on tuberculin testing of cattle.[7] In 1926, he had persuaded Illinois dairy farmers to destroy diseased cows, and convinced milk processors to improve their equipment for pasteurizing[4] He also increased the enforcement of pasteurization laws.[7] In the year 1928, the health department conducted 56,127 dairy farm inspections, a more than thirteen-fold increase from the number they had conducted in the year 1920.[7]

During his time in office, he acquired celebrity, often taking photo ops.[5] For instance, he was photographed handing bottles of milk from a railroad boxcar to children during a relief expedition Chicago sent to Miami after the 1926 Miami hurricane.[5] Taking credit for his work, he would often in interviews and appearances call himself the, "savior of babies, friend of mothers, and builder of public health.[4]

Bundesen wrote baby books which became widely sold in the 1920s and 1930s.[4] The Board of Health would also mail free copies to new mothers they identified from the city's birth records.[4]

In 1927, members of the Chicago Sanitary District board accused Bundesen of having spent $248,000 of health department funds "mostly for publicity".[13]

At the start of 1928, Mayor of Chicago William Hale Thompson fired Bundesen after he had refused to add the mayor's campaign literature to packets containing maternity health advice that were disseminated by his office.[4][5][14]

Health director of the Chicago Sanitary District

Bundensen worked briefly as the health director of the Chicago Sanitary District.[15] Bundensen had entered discussion with the Sanity Board's president, T. J. Crowe, in late 1927 about holding such a position.[16] In this position, Bundensen was involved in talks between the district and Chicago steel plants to decrease their contribution Lake Michigan water pollution.[17]

Cook County Coroner

In November 1928, running as the Democratic nominee, Bundesen was elected Cook County Coroner. He defeated the incumbent coroner, Oscar Wolff, by a three-to-one margin.[5][4][18] He received in excess of one million votes.[4]

In this position, Bundensen continued to take opportunities for media attention. He took photo ops after notable murders as well, including the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre and a 1930 mafia slaying of a Chicago Tribune reporter.[5]

He would step down as coroner on November 13, 1931 in order to be reinstated as health commissioner, and would be succeeded as coroner by Frank J. Walsh, the former clerk of the criminal court.[19]

Second tenure as Chicago City Health Commissioner and tenure as President of the Chicago Board of Health

In the 1931 Chicago mayoral election, Bundesen was speculated as a potential independent candidate, but in early March 1931 he declined to run in the April election.[20][21][22] Despite having been rivals of sorts with Democratic nominee Anton Cermak, Bundesen supported him over William Hale Thompson in the election.[23] Later in 1931, he was hired by the newly-elected mayor Cermak to again head serve as Health Commissioner of the City of Chicago.[4][5]

Going off of the allegations of spending that had been raised against Bundesen in 1927 by board of the Chicago Sanitary District, in 1931, Elmer L. Williams independently published a report accusing Bundensen of multiple improprieties during his time in civil service.[13]

This time with national funding and public support, Bundesen was able to better tackle sexually transmitted diseases than he had been in his first tenure.[11] He was successful in decreasing the rates of syphilis.[4]

On May 1932, the Chicago City Council established a five-member board of health, an act which the powers of the Department of Health.[9] Bundesen became president of the Chicago Board of Health, and also retained the position of health commissioner.[9][5]

He continued to focus on his efforts to decrease infant mortality after his return to power.[9] He also focused, again, on combatting impure milk.[9]

Always keen on media attention, in 1933, Bundesen would take the occasion of Cermak's assassination as a photo op.[5]

In 1933, while the city was hosting its Century of Progress world's fair he received national praise for identifying an outbreak of amoebiasis in the city and eradicating it.[4]

In 1936, he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of Illinois, challenging incumbent governor Henry Horner.[4][5] Bundesen's campaign was supported by the Chicago Democratic political machine, which was seeking to unseat Horner after Horner vetoed a bill supported by political bosses such as Mayor Edward J. Kelly that would have allowed bookmakers to operate legally.[5] Kelly calculated that Bundesen's name recognition from his popular baby books could carry him to victory.[5] During the campaign, Horner did not refer to Bundesen by name, and only referred to him as "Kelly's stooge".[5] Horner distributed a rival "baby book" during the campaign.[5] Bundesen, ultimately, was not taken by many as a serious candidate by many, in part due to his unorthodox campaigning style.[4] He would, on the campaign trail across the state, don a monocle and spats while pulling stunts like pounding on his own abdomen in an effort to show his physical fitness.[4] While Bundesen did win Cook County, Horner's support in the rest of the state was enough to carry him to a sizable victory.[24][25]

After losing the Democratic primary for governor, Bundesen returned to his job as the chief health official of Chicago.[5] He continued serving as President of the Chicago Board of Health until his death, and continued to serve as Health Commissioner of Chicago until only months earlier (being succeeded in that position by Samuel L. Andelman in April 1960).[6][4][5][9] Over the years, Bundesen would be regularly speculated as a potential mayoral candidate.[24]

By 1937, his efforts had made Chicago set new record lows for infant mortality rates in a large American city.[9] Also in 1937, Bundesen participated in an experimental treatment for a critically-ill infant girl. Sulfanilamide was injected into his bloodstream, given time to produce antibodies, and then his blood was injected into the baby, a treatment that ultimately saved her life.[5]

In the autumn of 1937, Chicago was hit by a polio outbreak. After Bundesen consulted with mayor Edward Joseph Kelly, he and the Chicago Board of Health ordered that schools remain closed. This threatened to delay the start of the school year. However, superintendent of Chicago Public Schools William Johnson and deputy superintendent Minnie Fallon implemented a revolutionary program that provided distance learning to elementary school students through radio broadcasts.[26][27][28]

Bundesen supported Jonas Salk's efforts to eradicate polio.[5] In 1955, Chicago became one of the earliest cities in the United States to introduce Salk's polio vaccine.[11] Bundesen campaigned for total inoculation of all youth.[4]

Bundesen garnered strong repute within his field.[4] He served as president of the American Public Health Association, and as a senior surgeon with the United States Public Health Service.[4]

Personal life

In 1909, Bundesen married Rega Russell, who adopted the name Rega Russell Bundesen after wedding him.[4] They had six children.[4]


Bundensen died of pancreatic cancer at Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago on August 25, 1960, at the age of 78.[24] The cancer had been detected in April 1960, when Bundsen was having gallbladder operation.[24] He had been in the hospital from then through July 8, when he was released and went to his summer home in Cedar Lake, Indiana.[24] However, he returned to the hospital on July 24.[24]

Books authored

  • Our Babies (1925)[4]
  • Before the Baby Comes (1926)[4]
  • The Growing Child (1927)[4]
  • Progress in the Prevention of Needless Neonatal Deaths (1952)[9]


  1. ^ "Name New Head of Chicago Health Board". Newspapers.com. Chicago Daily Calumet. December 8, 1960. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  2. ^ "11,000 Children Found Victims of Heart Ills". Newspapers.com. Chicago Tribune. January 17, 1931. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  3. ^ "Kegel At War With Bundesen Over Baby List". Newspapers.com. Chicago Tribune. January 9, 1928. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai Biles, Roger (2000). "Bundesen, Herman Niels (1882-1960), physician, author, and politician". American National Biography. doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0600075. ISBN 978-0-19-860669-7. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Grossman, Ron (October 20, 2017). "The Chicago public health czar who craved celebrity". chicagotribune.com. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 22, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c "Funeral Saturday for Herman N. Bundesen". Newspapers.com. Chicago Daily Calumet. August 26, 1960. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d e Block, Daniel R. (January 1, 2009). "Public health, cooperatives, local regulation, and the development of modern milk policy: the Chicago milkshed, 1900–1940". Journal of Historical Geography. 35 (1): 128–153. doi:10.1016/j.jhg.2007.12.001. ISSN 0305-7488. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  8. ^ "People ex rel. Barmore v. Robertson, 302 Ill. 422 (1922) | Caselaw Access Project". cite.case.law. Retrieved January 3, 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Historical Review and Recent Advances - Chapter 24". www.neonatology.org. Mead Johnson Nutritional Division. 1980.
  10. ^ "Dr. Robertson Resigns". The Daily Pantagraph. 76 (28). February 2, 1922. p. 1. Retrieved March 28, 2019 – via Newspapers.com.
  11. ^ a b c d "Public Health". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  12. ^ "Family Planning". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved December 22, 2020.
  13. ^ a b Williams, Elmer L. (1931). That Man Bundesen (PDF).
  14. ^ "The Dismissal of Dr. Herman N. Bundesen". American Journal of Public Health and the Nation's Health. Am J Public Health Nations Health. 18 (1): 69–70. January 1928. doi:10.2105/ajph.18.1.69. PMC 1580448. PMID 18012383.
  15. ^ "HOFFMAN DAM DANGER LESS". Newspapers.com. Suburban Leader (Cicero, Illinois). September 13, 1928. Retrieved August 17, 2021.
  16. ^ "DOCTOR BUNDENSEN MAY BECOME CHIEF SANITARIAN". Newspapers.com. Suburban Leader (Cicero, Illinois). December 15, 1927. Retrieved August 17, 2021.
  17. ^ "PHOPHESY DECREASE IN LAKE WATER POLLUTION". Newspapers.com. The Lake County Times. November 8, 1928. Retrieved August 17, 2021.
  18. ^ "Independent Voters Score Big Victory". DuPage County Register. November 9, 1928. p. 1. Retrieved December 30, 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  19. ^ "Chicago Daily Illini, Nov 18, 1931, p. 1". NewspaperArchive.com. Chicago Daily Illini. November 18, 1931.
  20. ^ "BUNDESEN WON'T BE CANDIDATE Chicago Race Between "Big Bill" Thompson and Anton J. Cermak". Newspapers.com. The Times from Munster, Indiana. March 4, 1931. Retrieved January 3, 2021.
  21. ^ "Clears Way For Union of City Hall Foes". Newspapers.com. Chicago Tribune. March 4, 1931.
  22. ^ "Bundesen Out of Mayor Race to Aid Cermak". Newspapers.com. Chicago Tribune. March 4, 1931. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  23. ^ "Politicians on Stage, 1931". www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved January 3, 2021.
  24. ^ a b c d e f "Health Board Head Active Here Since '22". Newspapers.com. Chicago Tribune. August 25, 1960. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  26. ^ White, p. 126
  27. ^ Strauss, Valerie; Hines, Michael. "Perspective | In Chicago, schools closed during a 1937 polio epidemic and kids learned from home — over the radio". Washington Post. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
  28. ^ "Delay Opening on Orders of Health Board. Chicago Tribune. 9.1.1937". www.newspapers.com. Chicago Tribune. September 1, 1937. Retrieved August 16, 2021.

External links

Media files used on this page

Herman Bundesen 1925 (1).jpg
Photo of the doctor