April 24, 2018

Mystery at the McAlester Scottish Rite Museum: The Trowel and the Doctor

By T.S. Akers

Housed within the collections of the McAlester Scottish Rite Valley are a variety of objects, most of which serve some practical purpose as paraphernalia of Freemasonry and some of which have further stories to tell. One particular item is a ceremonial trowel inscribed:

Grand Council
Royal and Select Masters
of Oklahoma
Austin R. Stough
Grand Master

Altar Trowel of Austin R. Stough
(From the collections of the McAlester Scottish Rite)

A trowel is an instrument made use of by operative masons to spread the cement which unites a building into one common mass. This particular ceremonial trowel served as part of the altar set of Companion Stough during his tenure as Illustrious Grand Master of Royal and Select Masters of Oklahoma. This trowel, along with the Square and Compasses and a small sword would have been placed upon the Holy Bible during tyled Masonic meetings.

The story of Austin R. Stough does not simply end there though. The piece elicits further questions. Who was Austin R. Stough and why does this trowel now reside in McAlester?

Austin R. Stough
Illustrious Grand Master of Royal and Select Masters of Oklahoma

Austin R. Stough was born in Geary, Oklahoma, on July 21, 1910. He went on to graduate from the University of Oklahoma in 1932 and then attended the University of Tennessee Medical School. He came to settle in McAlester and began a private practice in 1939.[i]

Stough took the degrees of Freemasonry in South McAlester Lodge No. 96, being initiated an Entered Apprentice on December 9, 1945, and raised to the degree of Master Mason in February of 1946. He joined the York Rite soon thereafter, holding membership in Indian Chapter No. 1 Royal Arch Masons, Union Council No. 3 Royal and Select Masters, and McAlester Commandery No. 6 Knights Templar. Stough also joined the McAlester Valley of the Scottish Rite in 1946.[ii]

As the Oklahoma representative to the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Ireland, Stough was given the distinction of Honorary Past Grand High Priest of Ireland. He was also a member of Joseph of Arimathea Tabernacle of the Holy Royal Arch Knights Templar Priests. Stough had the distinction of being the first Illustrious Grand Master of Royal and Select Masters of Oklahoma to be born in Oklahoma.[iii]

By all accounts, Stough was an active and upstanding Freemason in McAlester; but his Masonic career only tells half the story of who Austin R. Stough was. By 1939, he was serving as physician on a part-time basis at the State Penitentiary. It was there that Stough embarked upon a new business venture with several pharmaceutical companies to conduct voluntary drug tests on inmates. While the inmates who participated in the studies were compensated a dollar a day, the payoff for Stough proved much larger. He soon expanded into other state prisons, ultimately conducting 25 to 50 percent of initial drug trials in the United States up to 1964. Stough would ultimately move into plasma collection in the prisons of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Alabama.[iv]

Stough was able grow his plasma collection business outside of the state prison of Oklahoma by bringing prison physicians in Arkansas and Alabama onto his payroll. Operating under at least nine separate entities, Stough was grossing $1 million a year providing roughly a fourth of the nation’s plasma supply.[v]

The conditions under which Stough’s plasma collection operated quickly came under scrutiny. He began plasma collection at the state prison in McAlester in March of 1962. On September 19 of the same year, a technician working for Stough drew blood from an Oklahoma inmate whose blood type was O-positive. Once the plasma was drawn off, the technician re-injected the inmate with another man’s cells. Unfortunately, that blood was A-negative and the inmate suffered organ damage.[vi]

Cutter Laboratories, a consumer of Stough’s plasma, once noted that gross contamination was apparent in Stough’s operation, with the collection rooms being sloppy. This did not stop Cutter Laboratories from doing business with Stough though, as he had contacts with well-placed officials that could continue to provide access to a plasma donor pool. When Oklahoma legislators began to investigate if Stough was operating within the law, he retained the services of McAlester attorney, and State Senator, Gene Stipe for $1,000 a month. A law protecting Stough’s plasma collection was soon pushed through the Legislature.[vii]

In 1964, the conditions in which Stough operated his plasma collection venture came into serious question. At the Kilby prison in Alabama, one tenth of the population contracted viral hepatitis as a result of giving plasma. At least four inmates in Alabama died of hepatitis, one in Arkansas, and one in Oklahoma. Ultimately, the three states in which Stough operated closed their prison doors to him, but continued to collect plasma from inmates.[viii]

Stough faced no real repercussions for the disease his operation spread or the deaths he caused. He opened a private plasma collection center in Birmingham, Alabama, and a second in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1968. Stough moved the headquarters of Stough Enterprises to Cincinnati that year, though he would die shortly thereafter in 1972. In 1994, Stough Enterprises acquired the Hanke Building in Cincinnati, with renovation plans to include a bar called the Cell Block.[ix] Perhaps this was a nod to the company’s prison beginnings.

Freemasonry teaches a system of ethics and morality designed to help men become good role models to their family, their community, and their friends. Stough sought to provide a much needed service to the country with his plasma collection. In this way, he attempted to be a good role model. In Freemasonry, to Guard the West Gate means to be diligent in who is allowed into the Craft. But as a Freemason, one should also work to Guard the West Gate of their own bodily temple. In this way, Stough sacrificed much in the pursuit of fortune.

[i]  Proceedings of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Oklahoma: 63rd Annual Assembly (Oklahoma: Masonic Home Boys, 1957).
[ii]  Proceedings of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Oklahoma: 63rd Annual Assembly.
[iii]  Ibid.
[iv]  Walter Rugaber, “Prison Drug and Plasma Projects Leave Fatal Trail,” The New York Times (New York City, NY), July 29, 1969.
[v]  Rugaber.
[vi]  Ibid.
[vii]  Ibid.
[viii]  Ibid.
[ix]  Dan Monk, “Infusion of real estate adds to Stough’s growth; Stough Enterprises Inc,” Cincinnati Business Courier (Cincinnati, OH), April 10, 1998.

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