Dr. H. R. Allen established the National Surgical Institute in Indianapolis in 1858. The institute was the first of its kind in the United States. It specialized in deformities of all sorts (particularly club feet, harelips, and hip and spinal deformities) and the manufacture of surgical and mechanical appliances for the treatment of these cases. Patients were housed at the institute’s two four-story buildings on the northeast corner of Illinois and Georgia streets.

National Surgical Institute, ca. 1900s Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

By the 1870s, the National Surgical Institute had expanded to include four regional divisions located in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Francisco. The national headquarters remained at Indianapolis, and the original institute was the nation’s largest and most respected. In 1876, the Indianapolis division displayed samples of Dr. Allen’s many patented surgical and mechanical appliances in a 36-foot, $1,200 glass case ($29,000 in 2020) at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The display was the largest of its type and took the highest premium at the exhibition.

On January 21, 1892, a fire in the facility killed 19 patients, wounded 30 others, and caused over $30,000 in damage to the two buildings. At the time of the fire, the institute housed 316 patients. Since the buildings had been declared fire hazards more than 10 years earlier, the tragedy created a public outcry and spurred building code and safety reform in the city (see Fires).

Mary H. Pye (right) and Miss Fox at the National Surgical Institute, ca. 1900s Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

Allen decided to construct a new building across the street from the State House. However, building costs forced him to raise fees dramatically. The institute lost patients and ran into financial trouble. The location went into the hands of a receiver in November 1898, and the Medical College of Indiana moved into the new building a month later (see Medical Schools). Allen continued to live and work in Indianapolis, while most of his staff moved on to St. Louis and founded the McLain Sanitarium in 1899.

Revised March 2021

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