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Influenza Encyclopedia

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919:

A Digital Encyclopedia

Rochester, New York

50 U.S. Cities & Their Stories

On September 27, 1918, New York Health Commissioner Dr. Herman Biggs issued a public warning to residents across the state on the dangers of epidemic influenza. He noted that the disease itself was seldom fatal, but that the complicated pneumonia that frequently developed from it was quite dangerous. Strict quarantine was not practical, Biggs told the public, due to the highly contagious nature of influenza. Instead, those who developed symptoms should rest at home in bed until they were fully recovered. He advised the healthy to avoid poorly ventilated or crowded places.1

As of yet, only two cases of influenza had been reported to the Rochester Board of Health, and neither was confirmed. Influenza was not yet a reportable disease in Rochester, and officials had no way of knowing the true extent of the epidemic. The following day, September 28, four officially diagnosed cases of influenza were reported in the city, one of them a soldier recently arrived from Camp Dix, New Jersey.2 Rochester’s epidemic had begun.

A week later, Acting Health Officer Dr. Joseph Roby estimated nearly 1,000 cases in Rochester. The official number was still unknown, as the disease was not yet reportable. Regardless, officials realized that the city was either in the midst of or about to experience a severe epidemic and began to prepare. Rochester General Hospital set up a separate influenza ward. Education officials discussed the possibility of closing schools. The Army Aerial Photography School cancelled all leave and barred visitors from entering.3

The planning stage did not last long. On October 9, Commissioner of Public Safety Andrew Hamilton announced that all public, private, and parochial schools would close at noon, after students received instructions on influenza prevention and care. At 11:30 pm that evening, all theaters, movie houses, skating rinks, bowling alleys, and other places were to close. Any scheduled performances for that evening that extended beyond that deadline would be permitted to finish. Gymnasium classes and the pool at the Rochester Y.M.C.A. were suspended.4 The Chamber of Commerce, in conference with city officials and employers, asked retail shops to stagger business hours and the Eastman Kodak Camera Company as well as other large industries to stagger their shifts to prevent crowding on trolley cars.5 The next day, Commissioner Hamilton ruled that bowling alleys could remain open, but that no spectators would be allowed in the halls.6 Two days later, Hamilton extended the closure order to churches, soda fountains and ice cream parlors, saloons and hotel bars, and lodge and civic association meetings.7

Rochester’s epidemic grew in intensity over the course of the next several weeks. Physicians, whose ranks were thinned by nearly a quarter due to wartime service, were overwhelmed with cases. Nurses worked round-the-clock. By early-October it became clear that the general hospitals soon would be overrun with patients. With the help of the Red Cross and local institutions, Rochester opened and equipped several additional emergency hospitals: Infants’ Summer Hospital, for use by stricken soldiers; the local Y.M.C.A., used for women and children; the Baden Street Emergency Hospital for men, the Housekeeping Center on Lewis Street; and, for nine days only, Gannett House, the parish house of the First Unitarian Church.8 Together, these emergency hospitals helped relieve much of the strain placed on Rochester’s general hospitals as they tried to deal with the massive influx of influenza and pneumonia patients.

By the end of October, over 10,000 cases of influenza had been reported to the Bureau of Health, and nearly 450 patients had died as a result.9 According to Health Officer Roby, however, most of the newer cases were milder. In addition, the number of influenza patients in the city’s hospitals had decreased. Residents were hopeful that the restrictions therefore would be removed soon. Theater workers, in particular, wanted them removed, as they were among the most affected by the closures. At least four hundred people connected with Rochester’s theaters were temporarily out of work, and, because the epidemic was considered an “act of God,” they were not receiving paychecks.10 Commissioner Hamilton, while sensitive to the plight of city workers, was not convinced that the slightly better epidemic news warranted lifting the closure order. After an additional week of decreasing case reports, however, Roby was. At 7:00 pm on Tuesday, November 5–Election Day–the closure order was removed.11

Public schools opened the following day, giving officials time to prepare the buildings and staff. Many teachers had to be recalled from volunteer service, and a number of them were ill with influenza themselves. Rochester’s Catholic schools remained closed an additional week in order to allow the sisters who had been caring for the ill to rest before resuming their teaching duties. As in other communities that had closed schools, Rochester was in a bit of a quandary as to how best to make up the lost classroom days. The School Superintendent believed that the only way to proceed was to observe only actual holidays and not the usual associated breaks. Thus, children would be required to attend school the day after Thanksgiving as well as the day after Christmas.12

Rochester slowly recovered from its epidemic. The city experienced a slight second peak in early- to mid-December, but the number of new cases never rose high enough for officials to consider a second closure order. Residents were pleased by the decision, especially those who once again would have been thrown out of work. The epidemic had been particularly costly to them. For the city, the epidemic reduced Rochester’s coffers by an estimated $20,000, although some of that money went to more permanent equipment such as beds that could be used in future health crises.13

The death toll was even more devastating. All told, Rochester experienced nearly 30,000 cases of influenza. Of these cases over 1,000 resulted in death. Yet despite these high numbers, Rochester’s epidemic was much less severe than that of many other American cities, including ones in New York. Albany, for example, had an excess death rate of 553 per 100,000. Buffalo’s was 530 and Syracuse’s 541. Rochester, by comparison, had an excess death rate of 360 per 100,000, nearly identical to that of St. Louis, touted as one of the best examples of epidemic handling in the nation. Like St. Louis, Rochester officials reacted quickly to the growing number of influenza cases in the city, enacting social distancing measures within a matter of days after realizing that the epidemic had begun.


1 “No Spanish Influenza Reported Here as Yet,” Rochester Times-Union, 27 Sept. 1918, 21.

2 “Spanish Influenza Here, Four Cases Are Reported,” Rochester Times-Union, 28 Sept. 1918, 9; Annual Report of the Health Bureau, City of Rochester, NY, 1918 (Rochester, NY: 1919), 318.

3 “Influenza Here Increases, But Not Alarmingly,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 7 Oct. 1918, 14; “Will Likely Close Schools to Prevent Influenza Spread,” Rochester Times-Union, 8 Oct. 1918, 8.

4 “Influenza Closes the Schools and All Amusement Places,” Rochester Times-Union, 9 Oct. 1918, 9.

5 “To Change Workers’ Hours as Influenza Preventative,” Rochester Times-Union, 9 Oct. 1918, 9.

6 “Bowling Alleys Not Ordered to Close,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 10 Oct. 1918, 23.

7 “Sweeping Closing Order to Prevent Further Spread of Spanish Influenza,” Rochester Times-Union, 12 Oct. 1918, 8.

8 Annual Report of the Health Bureau, City of Rochester, NY, 1918 (Rochester, NY: 1919), 321.

9 “Reported Influenza Cases Now Number over 10,000,” Rochester Times-Union, 28 Oct. 1918, 8.

10 “Theatrical People Hit by Epidemic,” Rochester Times-Union, 19 Oct. 1918, 8.

11 “Additional Evidence Nears End,” Rochester Times-Union, 5 Nov. 1918, 8.

12 “No Plans for Making up Time in the Schools,” Rochester Times-Union, 5 Nov. 1918, 8.

13 “No Death from Either Pneumonia or Influenza,” Rochester Times-Union, 7 Jan. 1919, 8.

Main Street looking East from Franklin ca. 1912. The next year, the Hotel Rexford (8 Franklin Street) became the Hotel Berkeley. Otherwise, the block would have looked much the same in 1918. In 1955, the Monroe County Savings Bank was built on the site. Today, the Salvation Army is located in the building. Click on image for gallery. Main Street looking East from Franklin ca. 1912. The next year, the Hotel Rexford (8 Franklin Street) became the Hotel Berkeley. Otherwise, the block would have looked much the same in 1918. In 1955, the Monroe County Savings Bank was built on the site. Today, the Salvation Army is located in the building.
A view of Upper Falls (High Falls) of the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. The falls was the source of Rochester’s flourmills and other industries in the 19th and 20th centuries. This particular postcard was mailed on November 13, 1918, during the city’s influenza epidemic. Click on image for gallery. A view of Upper Falls (High Falls) of the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. The falls was the source of Rochester’s flourmills and other industries in the 19th and 20th centuries. This particular postcard was mailed on November 13, 1918, during the city’s influenza epidemic.
A 1904 map of Rochester, NY. Click on image for gallery. A 1904 map of Rochester, NY.

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Rochester, New York

Timeline of Events

Excess Death Rate (per 100,000) Daily EventsClick day to view details. Selected Event
200Excess Death Rate (per 100,000)
Total Excess Death Rate 359
Total Deaths per 100,000 population over duration of epidemic (roughly 1918 September 14 through 1919 February 22).

September 18, 1918

Dr. Joseph Roby, Acting City Health Officer, states that the Health Bureau expects to have a pneumonia vaccine ready to be supplied to applicants on October 1.

September 21, 1918

9,313 cases and 11 deaths have occurred to date in army camps. Health Officer Roby states that to his knowledge no cases of Spanish influenza have been reported in the city. He urges people to send a sample of sputum to the health bureau for examination if they suffer from what may be Spanish influenza or pneumonia.

September 23, 1918

No influenza cases are reported, but the Health Bureau will still take precautions. Rochester nurses are sent to Boston to aid influenza patients.

September 26, 1918

Two cases of suspected influenza are reported to the Health Bureau, but there are no confirmed cases. Health authorities urge the public to strictly observe suggested preventive measures.

September 27, 1918

There are still no confirmed cases. State Commissioner of Health Herman M. Biggs states that strict quarantine measures are not practical because of the highly contagious nature of the disease.

September 28, 1918

Health Officer Roby says influenza is present in Rochester, and attributes the disease to the Pfeiffer bacillus. He urges doctors to send sputum or urine samples for the purpose of diagnosis and the tracking of illness, and patients to take bed-rest.

September 30, 1918

The city remains mostly free from Spanish influenza, with a few undiagnosed, possible cases.

October 2, 1918

The first death in Rochester from influenza occurs when a soldier, recently returned from training at Camp Upton, dies from influenza. Four more cases are reported, and Health Officer Roby warns the public to continue using preventive measures.

October 5, 1918

15 cases are reported for the day. Nearly 100 cases total are present in Rochester. Health Officer Roby says he is not alarmed by these reports, and hospital space is adequate. There is a scarcity of nurses.

October 6, 1918

20 cases are reported today. Health Officer Roby urges those with chills to take bed-rest.

October 7, 1918

Health Officer Roby reports 400 cases and three deaths.

October 8, 1918

There are 1,000 cases reported today. At a meeting today Mayor Hiram H. Edgerton and Commissioner of Public Safety Andrew Hamilton will determine whether schools should be closed.

October 9, 1918

Under order of Commissioner of Safety Hamilton, public, private, and parochial schools are closed from today until October 21. This evening theaters, moving picture theaters, roller skating rinks, bowling alleys, and other places of amusement are closed. Churches remain open for now. Twelve city physicians are made available for those who do not have the means to secure the services of a physician. Working hours are to be changed in order to prevent crowding on trolley cars.

October 10, 1918

By order of the Health Bureau funerals of influenza patients must be held privately. Commissioner Hamilton states that bowling alleys may continue business, providing spectators are not allowed to enter the buildings.

October 11, 1918

A quarantine against visitors at the local hospitals is declared. Health Officer Roby asks all persons caring for sufferers of influenza to wear gauze masks. Police are instructed to strictly enforce the ordinance against spitting. The majority of churches in the city voluntarily call off services. About 2,500 people are now ill.

October 12, 1918

Commissioner Hamilton extends the closing order to churches, Sunday schools, soda water fountains, ice cream parlors, meetings of lodges, civic associations, social clubs, saloons, hotel bars, and bars of retail and wholesale liquor stores. Health Officer Roby issues a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” which asks people to avoid crowds, refrain from spitting, etcetera.

October 13, 1918

Theaters and concert venues remain closed. The Red Cross solicits the aid of volunteers to fill staff shortages, and requests donations of linen.

October 14, 1918

Health Officer Roby doesn’t think there is any reason to call the current epidemic in Rochester Spanish influenza. He says that they are the same symptoms as the epidemic of 1889-90.

October 15, 1918

Commissioner Hamilton bans the sale of all drinks intended for consumption on the premises of the retailer. An appeal is made for people to lend their services and automobiles to take aids from home to home. The Red Cross is calling for emergency aids to volunteer for homecare duty.

October 16, 1918

Hospitals are taxed to the utmost and still in need of nurses. City authorities consider changing business hours again to further relieve crowding on trolley cars, as the orders last week seem to have not been enough. Sheriff Andrew Weidenmann is working to ensure that saloons and hotels meet sanitary standards.

October 17, 1918

According to Health Officer Roby closing orders will continue for some time. However, no additional closings are currently proposed. Eight deaths are reported.

October 18, 1918

More than ninety physicians have yet to report their case totals. The closing order has been extended for an indefinite time, but it is believed that the local epidemic will reach its peak very shortly.

October 19, 1918

18 deaths are reported for the day. The closing order against public gatherings is extended. The Red Cross places nearly 200 volunteer nurses on duty in Rochester. More than 400 people connected with the theaters are out of work with the majority deprived of salaries. Authorities do not believe the peak of the epidemic has been reached.

October 20, 1918

Health Officer Roby encourages the public to be immunized. The Red Cross requests the aid of men and women able to volunteer as nurses.

October 21, 1918

Concerns about influenza transmission are causing a loss of business for the streetcar company.

October 22, 1918

A pneumonia vaccine is ready and will be available after samples are sent from the New York Health Department.

October 23, 1918

School officials are hopeful that conditions will allow schools to open Monday, October 28. Orders for the strict enforcement of sneezing and coughing laws have been issued to the police.

October 24, 1918

The shortage of nursing staff in the city continues to hinder relief efforts. The Red Cross is providing relief services including automobile transportation and meal delivery.

October 25, 1918

Closing orders are to remain in effect. Volunteer nurses are still needed, though the situation has been improved by members of the police department working as nurses or in other capacities for the Health Bureau.

October 26, 1918

Health Officer Roby believes that the epidemic has not yet reached its peak. The School Board announces that school will not reopen Monday.

October 27, 1918

Health Officer Roby considers placing placards on houses affected with influenza. The Red Cross is still in need of nurses.

October 28, 1918

Additional vaccine is being prepared at the Health Bureau and it is hoped that there will be enough for use as a general preventive. Hospitals are approaching maximum capacity, and emergency hospital facilities are bearing more and more responsibility for treatment.

October 29, 1918

Police are strictly enforcing saloon closures and authorities are consulting to determine an appropriate punishment for closing violators.

October 30, 1918

The Red Cross still needs more nurses.

October 31, 1918

Commissioner Hamilton says there is practically no chance that the restrictions will be eased soon. Hamilton instructs police to be extra vigilant in curtailing Halloween activities among children. Almost all hospitals are at full capacity.

November 1, 1918

Commissioner Hamilton says that despite better conditions there are no intentions of lifting the bans. Health Officer Roby expresses optimism that soon the closing orders may be rescinded.

November 2, 1918

Commissioner Hamilton says closing orders are to be lifted at 7 pm on November 5. A formal announcement will be made on Monday, November 4. Health Officer Roby discusses the findings of his report on influenza.

November 3, 1918

The complete text of Health Officer Roby’s report on influenza is reprinted.

November 4, 1918

Hospital conditions are resuming a normal character, but nurses are still needed and the Red Cross will welcome any volunteers. Precautions such as fumigating voting machines and voting places are to be used on Election Day.

November 5, 1918

Superintendent H.S. West says that school will be open the day after Thanksgiving and throughout the usual Christmas vacation. Funerals are still restricted to private services for victims of influenza.

November 6, 1918

The reopening of closed places is underway today. The Red Cross issues an appeal for more nurses and cars to carry them. Secretary George C. Donahue, of the Rochester Automobile Club, is calling for 100 members to volunteer to carry nurses to and from cases. 17 deaths and 152 cases are reported.

November 7, 1918

All cases requiring hospital attention now can be cared for at the regular hospitals according to Health Officer Roby. The Red Cross issues another call for volunteers and donations of automobile transportation to aid in the struggle against influenza.

November 8, 1918

A decrease is noted in influenza figures, but precautions are still urged.

November 10, 1918

Health Officer Roby feels that severity of the influenza epidemic is in a steep decline.

November 11, 1918

No deaths from influenza occurred in hospitals for the day. Health Officer Roby encourages people to maintain anti-influenza and anti-pneumonia precautions.

November 12, 1918

The public evening schools are open tonight for the first time in over 4 weeks.

November 13, 1918

City aldermen authorize an allocation of funds to reimburse the Rochester Chapter of the American Red Cross for resources spent fighting influenza.

November 17, 1918

The hospital in the Y.W.C.A. is closed due to the decline in influenza.

November 19, 1918

An increase is noted in influenza figures. Commissioner Hamilton can offer no explanation for the increase, but says that there is no reason for alarm.

November 23, 1918

All emergency hospitals opened during the epidemic are now closed.

November 26, 1918

Health Officer Roby encourages people to obtain the anti-influenza vaccine available at the Health Bureau. 85 influenza cases are reported for the day.

November 27, 1918

A marked increase in the influenza figures is noted. According to Health Officer Roby this may be due to a greater number of physicians complying with orders to report cases.

November 28, 1918

136 cases of influenza are reported for today.

November 29, 1918

The University of Rochester is placed under quarantine and all passes for leave for members of the Student Army Training Corps are canceled.

November 30, 1918

Despite a slight decrease in the number of cases, authorities do not believe there is a serious “kick back” of influenza.

December 1, 1918

The Health Bureau takes over duties previously filled by the Red Cross, and is having difficulty retaining adequate nursing staff. The Bureau issues a call for volunteers.

December 3, 1918

There is no need to reopen any emergency hospitals, but supplies for them are being held in readiness.

December 4, 1918

Chief Little of the Fire Department told Commissioner Hamilton this morning that his department is seriously crippled by influenza, more so than at any point before. Health Officer Roby comments on the effect of weather conditions on illness transmission. He remains of the opinion that many cases are a product of overdue paperwork being filed.

December 5, 1918

There is an increase in influenza cases in districts around Rochester.

December 10, 1918

Plans are made to reopen emergency hospitals as soon as the regular hospitals reach capacity.

December 11, 1918

People of the city are growing concerned about the care of the poor, specifically regarding the need of coal to heat homes. The Health Bureau needs volunteer nurses.

December 12, 1918

Authorities hypothesize that the death toll after the epidemic will far exceed prior assumptions due to a lack of emergency hospitals.

December 13, 1918

The need for nurses has been temporarily met according to the Health Bureau.

December 14, 1918

Health Officer Dr. George Washington Goler returns from war duty at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina. Dr. Goler says that influenza is not influenza, but rather a medical infection of unknown cause.

December 25, 1918

15 influenza deaths are reported.

January 4, 1919

Figures show that the drop in temperature had a marked effect on influenza figures and it is hoped that a continuation of this type of weather will wipe out influenza.

January 6, 1919

There is encouragement that the influenza for the second time “has practically burned itself out.”

January 7, 1919

About $17,500 has been spent by the city administration in fighting the influenza.

January 13, 1919

There have been no new pneumonia cases since Saturday, 1/11.

January 14, 1919

Six influenza cases are reported.

February 17, 1919

Because of the epidemic, women are being forced to enter the workforce. The Women’s Department of the United States Employment Service is daily receiving applications for employment from girls and women in the aftermath of the influenza epidemic in Rochester.

April 25, 1919

County Judge Fred L. Downs has died of influenza.