Bowen was born near Rochester, Indiana, to Vernie Bowen and Pearl Irene Wright. His father’s side of the family were deeply religious and originally came from Ohio. Vernie graduated from Valparaiso University and was a teacher for 43 years. Vernie also owned a hardware store in Leiters Ford, was a trustee for Aubbeenaubbee Township, President of the Woodlawn Hospital Board of Trustees, and President of the Leiters Ford Merchants Association. He was a Scottish Rite Freemason and a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. In 1915, Vernie married Pearl Irene Wright, whose family was also from Ohio and involved with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Otis Bowen is a distant relative of George W. Bush through two brothers who immigrated to New England from Somerset, England. He received his elementary and high school education from local schools and went on to graduate from Indiana University with an A.B. in 1939 and M.D. in 1942. He holds 25 honorary degrees, including one from the University of Notre Dame and another from Baylor University.
He married Elizabeth Ann Steinmann in 1939, who died shortly before his term as Indiana Governor expired in 1981. Following her death, he married Rose Mary Hochstetler in September 1981. In a few years, Rose passed away. Shortly after he married his current wife Carol.
During his medical and teaching career, Dr. Bowen also got into Republican Party politics, serving as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1956 to 1958 and again from 1960 to 1972. He was speaker of the house from 1967 to 1972, Vice Chairman of the legislative council from 1967 to 1968, and Chairman until 1972. After his unsuccessful attempt in 1968, he was elected Governor of Indiana in 1972 and was re-elected for a second term in 1976, making him the first Governor to serve for eight years in Indiana since 1851. His campaign slogan, featured in huge letters on billboards, was "Otis Bowen. He Hears You". As Governor he initiated a tax restructuring, and developed a state-wide emergency medical services system. From 1978 to 1985, he also served on the board of trustees for Valparaiso University.
Dr. Bowen continued teaching at Indiana University until he was appointed by President Reagan as Secretary of Health and Human Services and confirmed by the US Senate on a vote of 93 to 2, making him the first medical doctor to serve in this position. It is said that as Secretary he always had a prescription pad handy, recommending remedies to cure the common cold and sore throat for both colleagues and members of the press. He served this position until 1989, when he retired to his home in Bremen, Indiana.