History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections

"Yellow Fever Expert"



            Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn was the 26th person to serve as Kentucky Governor and the first physician.

            Prior to his election as governor, the Woodford County native practiced medicine in Natchez, Mississippi, where he won national acclaim for his work in curtailing the spread of the “Yellow Fever” epidemic in the Mississippi Valley in the 1850s.

            Blackburn was born in Woodford County on June 16, 1816.  He graduated from Transylvania’s medical school in 1835, the same year he married Ella Gist Boswell of Lexington.  The couple had one son, Cary.  Ella died in 1856.  He later married Julia Churchill of Louisville. 

            Blackburn’s younger brother Joseph C.S. Blackburn, born in 1838 was a U.S. Senator from Kentucky from 1885 to 1897.  Though a Democrat, he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the Governor of the Panama Canal Zone for 1907-1909.

            During the Civil War, Blackburn served as a civilian agent for the Confederate Government in Canada.  He also aided Confederate Blockade Runners from Canada.  Due to his expertise in yellow fever, he was accused of plotting to spread yellow fever throughout the northern America cities-which was would be considered bio-terrorism in the 21st Century.   His activities were so notorious that he was indicted in Toronto for violating Canadian neutrality.   He was acquitted.  However, due to his activities on behalf on the Confederacy, Blackburn lived in exile in Canada until 1872.

            Upon leaving Canada, he returned to Kentucky to practice medicine.  He became well-known for his work giving aid to victims of yellow fever during the 1873 epidemic in Memphis, the 1877 epidemic in Florida and an 1878 epidemic in Western Kentucky where he became known as the “Hero of Hickman”.

            In 1878, the “Hero of Hickman” was elected governor of Kentucky.  As governor, Blackburn encouraged the General Assembly to pass a variety of judicial, educational and public health reforms.  The Agriculture and Mechanical College was re-organized as the “State College”  ultimately to be known as the “University of Kentucky” in 1816.

            Blackburn’s greatest single accomplishment as governor was to focus the need to reform Kentucky’s prisons.  He was successful in forcing attention to make changes to the state prison in Frankfort, known at that time as “Kentucky’s Black Hole of Calcutta” due to its crowded and unsanitary conditions.    He did this in part by issuing a large number of pardons when the legislature initially did not respond.  He issued over 1,000 pardons to alleviate prison overcrowding. Governor Blackburn became exceedingly unpopular due to the pardons gaining the nickname-“Lenient Luke”.

            The General Assembly responded by authorizing a new state prison at Eddyville.  At Blackburn’s urging the General Assembly passed legislation establishing Kentucky first system of parole.

            After leaving office, he briefly practiced medicine before his death on September 14, 1887.

             As most of Blackburn's work preventing the spread of yellow fever was done without compensation, the stone marking his grave has an inscription of the "Good Samaritan" in recognition for his work with the sick.

            In recognition of Blackburn’s efforts at prison reform, the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1971, named the Blackburn Correctional Facility in his honor.

          Photos--Gov. Blackburn and the entrance to the Blackburn Correctional Complex near Lexington and the picture of the "Good Samaritan" on Blackburn's grave in Frankfort.


A balding man with white hair wearing a white shirt and black coat and bowtie






BCC Entrance Sign