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Influenza Encyclopedia

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919:

A Digital Encyclopedia

Des Moines, Iowa

50 U.S. Cities & Their Stories

October 10, 1918. “Des Moines goes under quarantine today.” Thus read the first line of a front-page article on the influenza epidemic in the city’s newspaper, the Des Moines Register. Influenza had been circulating in the city for the past two weeks, but the number of cases reported had been small. It was at Camp Dodge, a dozen miles or so northwest of Des Moines, where the epidemic was raging. There, as many as 3,000 soldiers were ill. City officials knew, however, that it was only a matter of time before the epidemic hit civilians with the same vigor. For that reason, the Board of Health voted to close all churches, schools, and places of amusement and congregation. Residents were asked to remain at home if they began to experience symptoms of illness as state law did not permit the mandatory quarantining of influenza cases. Officials knew that such measures would not prevent an epidemic, but hoped that it would reduce the total number of cases and spread them out across a longer time period so as not to overwhelm Des Moines’ healthcare infrastructure.1 It was an incredibly sophisticated understanding of how best to handle an influenza epidemic, one that was lacking in most other American cities at the time.

The war placed Des Moines in a unique, if difficult, position. Many large cities had military camps nearby, but few were as close as Camp Dodge was to Des Moines. Medical officers had placed the camp under quarantine, barring soldiers from leaving or visitors from entering. Camp Dodge, however, was still in the midst of construction, requiring laborers from the city. The result was a daily movement of civilians to and from the camp and an inevitable intermingling of soldier and residents. To compound the problem, these laborers crowded the early-morning streetcars in order to get to the job site. Despite restrictions on streetcar crowding, officials had little choice but to bow to wartime exigencies and modify the order: laborers could fill streetcars up to twenty-five people over seating capacity until 7:30 am, after which time the normal anti-crowding measures would resume.2

By this time, however, it appeared as though the epidemic at Camp Dodge had passed its peak.3 The real danger, then, was to the civilian population. Yet the epidemic in Des Moines had not been especially severe, and peaked shortly after that at Camp Dodge. On October 28, the health board lifted the closure order and gathering ban, a move most members had supported earlier but chose to err on the side of caution.4 Residents were once again free to catch a movie or attend the theater, while children returned to their classrooms with attendance only slightly reduced. The School Board later voted to reduce the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks in order to make up the lost classroom time, a problem compounded by the need to release male students in time for the spring planting season.5

Des Moines was not out of the woods yet, however. With the social distancing measures removed, influenza cases began to increase once again. The School Board reinstated the Friday after Thanksgiving as a holiday in an attempt to control the spread of the disease among schoolchildren.6 A few days later, they closed schools completely. Dr. Woods Hutchinson, a national health figure and vocal advocate of flu masks, visited Des Moines and began preaching their benefits. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Health issued a recommendation to residents to wear masks while in public. On December 2, the Board made that recommendation mandatory: as of noon that day, the wearing of face masks was required in all public places such as theaters and even college classrooms, but were not required in streetcars, office buildings, or stores and shops. Interestingly, theater and movie house operators were willing to close to bring about a quicker end to the epidemic, but were asked by the Board of Health to remain open. “We think a certain amount of amusement is necessary,” commented Commissioner of Public Safety Ben Wolgar.7

The mask order did not last long. Theatergoers were unhappy that they had to wear masks while watching stage performances or movies, and theater owners were unhappy that they had to enforce the order in their establishments. Box office receipts fell drastically. At the Garden Theater, for example, six hundred patrons attended the December 2 matinee show, before the mask order went into effect; only two hundred attended the evening performance. Across the city, theaters and movie houses reported half of the usual attendance. Many Des Moines residents, it seemed, so disliked wearing flu masks that they preferred to remain at home rather than to don one. Bending to the will of the people and business interests, and with the support of physicians who (correctly) argued that gauze masks did little to prevent the spread of influenza, the Board of Health revoked the order on December 4 and once again made the wearing of flu masks voluntary.8

Control measures were still needed, however, as the number of new influenza cases continued to rise. The day the mask order was removed was the single worst day of the epidemic, with nearly 500 cases reported. On December 6, the Board of Health issued a set of social distancing measures after conferring with business and labor leaders. All dance halls, skating rinks, outdoor sporting venues, consignment stores, and improperly ventilated shops were ordered closed. Other places of public amusement were limited to half of their seating capacity. Schools were included in the list, but were effectively already closed by order of the board of education. Churches were allowed to remain open but Sunday schools were closed. Most clergy were of the opinion that regular services should not be held until all danger had passed. The order was slated to remain in effect until at least December 16.9

By the time that date approached, the influenza situation had begun to improve once again. On December 16, social distancing measures were removed and Des Moines residents were once again able to attend dances, go to football games, and ice skate in the city’s rinks. The Board of Education, however, decided to play it safe and keep schools closed through the upcoming Christmas holidays. When schools finally reopened on December 30, officials were pleased to find attendance was back to normal.10


1 “Quarantine’s Lid Settles over City,” Des Moines Register, 10 Oct. 1918, 1; “Red Cross Unites to Fight Plague,” Des Moines Register, 8 Oct. 1918, 1.

2 “Quarantine Gives Epidemic Control,” Des Moines Register, 12 Oct. 1918, 6.

3 “Camp Dodge Flu Situation Better,” Des Moines Register, 13 Oct. 1918, 6.

4 “Quarantine Rules to Be Lifted Today,” Des Moines Register, 28 Oct. 1918, 3. On October 18, as influenza raged across much of Iowa, the state board of health enacted a state-wide closure order and gathering ban. As conditions in Des Moines improved, the state board made it clear that communities had the authority to lift the closure order as they saw fit and in response to local conditions. See, “State Quarantine is Now in Effect,” Des Moines Register, 18 Oct. 1918, 8, and “Quarantine Relief is Expected Soon,” Des Moines Register, 24 Oct. 1918, 6.

5 “Schools May Lose Holiday Vacation,” Des Moines Register, 3 Nov. 1918, 5, and “Cut School Vacations,” Des Moines Register, 6 Nov. 1918, 8.

6 “Schools Given Holiday,” Des Moines Register, 27 Nov. 1918, 10.

7 “Flu Mask Edict Is in Effect Tonight,” Des Moines Register, 2 Dec. 1918, 1. Theater and movie house owners believed that a mask ordinance would be too difficult to enforce on their premises, and so preferred a complete closure order. See “Flu Precaution Is Yet to Be Decided,” Des Moines Register, 30 Nov. 1918, 10.

8 “Mask Regulations Go into Operation,” Des Moines Register, 3 Dec. 1918, 1.

9 “New Flu Program Effective Today,” Des Moines Register, 6 Dec. 1918, 1.

10 “Flu Restrictions Are Terminated,” Des Moines Register, 17 Dec. 1918, 1; “School Attendance Good,” Des Moines Register, 31 Dec. 1918, 5.

A bird’s-eye view of Des Moines. Click on image for gallery. A bird’s-eye view of Des Moines.
Seventh Street looking south from Locust Street, Des Moines. Click on image for gallery. Seventh Street looking south from Locust Street, Des Moines.
Mercy Hospital, Des Moines. Click on image for gallery. Mercy Hospital, Des Moines.

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Des Moines, Iowa

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 ###
Total Deaths per 100,000 population over duration of epidemic (roughly 1918 September 14 through 1919 February 22).

October 4, 1918

Three cases of flu are reported in a Des Moines hostess house. Families of ill soldiers are able to secure camp passes to see their sons.

October 5, 1918

Mayor Thomas Fairweather, City Council, and various community representatives meet to discuss methods of preventing the further spread of influenza within the city. Dr. W.C. Witte, City Sanitarian, reports seven official cases, but believes there may be as many as 100 cases unreported by physicians.

Camp Dodge reports 2,500 suspected cases of influenza.

The Secretary of the State Board of Health rules that caskets of influenza victims cannot be unsealed for viewing, and also forbids public funerals for influenza.

October 6, 1918

Camp Dodge receives an emergency shipment of robes and pajamas, bed sheets, and various hospital supplies from the Red Cross. Five nurses are sent from Council Bluffs, Iowa to assist at Camp Dodge.

October 7, 1918

Twenty-two barracks are set up as temporary hospitals at Camp Dodge.

October 8, 1918

Principals are instructed to send home children with suspected cases of influenza or with influenza in their families.

October 9, 1918

Limits on the number of passengers allowed in streetcars are put into place. Actors are ordered not to leave city.

Methodist Hospital’s west wing is made ready for influenza cases.

October 10, 1918

Des Moines implements a quarantine, closing all places of amusement, churches, and schools. A special influenza committee is formed. This body intends to meet 9am daily to hear complaints and adjust quarantine as necessary.

Colonel Rich reports that the number of influenza cases is declining at Camp Dodge, with admissions and discharges almost equal now.

October 11, 1918

Des Moines College holds classes today, the only school still open in the city.

A meeting is held between all principals, Superintendent of Schools Z. C. Thornburg, School Physician Dr. Fred Moore, and Dr. Witte. Discussed is a plan to carry out a teacher-run survey of students’ homes and health. The special influenza committee formulates a special opening-and-closing schedule for downtown stores in order to avoid overcrowding. Nickel and dime stores announce they will hire nurses to monitor health of employees. The motor trade bureau requests that automobile owners pick up those who cannot fit in full streetcars in order to help relieve congestion.

Two thousand face masks are delivered to the Health Department.

Mayors throughout the state are instructed to report cases to the State Board of Health.

October 12, 1918


The first meeting of the Polk County Red Cross health committee is held today. Committees are formed to handle the following: rules for prevention, publicity, sanitary policing, and ambulances.

The Red Cross at Camp Dodge appeals for additional housekeepers, clerks with stenographic skills, and men to help MPs police traffic between city and cantonment.

Announced is a plan for teachers to carry out a house-to-house survey in order to determine the extent of disease.

The football game between the University of Iowa and Coe College is cancelled.

October 13, 1918

Dr. Charles M. Whicher is appointed Assistant City Sanitarian.

Joe Young, 42, of Marquette, MI, is the first to be arrested for spitting on sidewalk in violation of newly enacted law prohibiting spitting.

October 14, 1918

The special influenza committee calls for both Methodist and Mercy hospitals to set aside fifty beds each for influenza patients, and ten beds each in Iowa Lutheran, Congregational, and Des Moines General hospitals.

October 16, 1918

A corps of influenza doctors is established at police stations to handle emergency calls for medical attention.

October 18, 1918

The State Board of Health places all of Iowa under quarantine. The announcement reads, “To Mayors, Health officers, and Local Boards of Health: You are directed and hereby ordered this day to have all public gatherings of every kind in your municipality forbidden. All theaters, schools, churches, movies, lodge rooms, and everything that brings people together in numbers, and this includes public funerals, must be closed.”

October 21, 1918

Camp Dodge quarantine is altered to allow more movement within camp; re-opening are the YMCA, Knight of Columbus, and hostess house.

October 22, 1918

Regular work is resumed at Camp Dodge.

October 25, 1918

The Health Department announces that restrictions will be lifted Monday, October 28 provided there is no serious relapse in number of cases.

October 27, 1918

Polk County Red Cross halts all services at Camp Dodge as conditions have dramatically improved. Civilians will be allowed to visit Saturday 1-5 p.m. and Sunday 8am-5pm.

The special influenza committee meets for the final time this morning.

October 28, 1918

The City Health Department lifts quarantine restrictions on Des Moines today. Soldiers of Camp Dodge are still prohibited from attending movies, theaters, and other places of amusement in Des Moines. Fort Des Moines to remain under quarantine. Two subcommittees are formed to ensure extra precautions taken in theaters for extra ventilation and to ensure soldiers do not overcrowd places of amusement.

October 30, 1918

The Red Cross influenza committee announces it will continue work until the epidemic is completely in check.

November 1, 1918

A gathering of military and welfare organizations is held to honor the soldiers and nurses who died of influenza at Camp Dodge, with Governor William L. Harding delivering an address.

November 3, 1918

City churches hold services for the first time since implementation of the quarantine.

New cases at Fort Des Moines necessitate an extension of its quarantine.

November 6, 1918

The School Board votes to cut school vacations to make up time lost due to the quarantine. School to be held Friday following Thanksgiving, and the two-week Christmas vacation will be shortened to ten days.

November 7, 1918

The Red Cross once again asks those willing to employ their nursing skills to contact the organization so that they may be dispatched to help needy families.

November 9, 1918

A pneumonia vaccine is offered to enlisted men, officers, and civilian employees at Camp Dodge on voluntary basis.

November 21, 1918

The special influenza committee sends letters to local physicians asking them to be sure to report cases to the Board of Health.

November 27, 1918

Due to an increase in influenza cases, the Friday following Thanksgiving will be reinstated as a holiday from school.

November 29, 1918

Due to an increase of influenza cases, schools will remain closed today. Originally classes were to be held today to make up the time lost during the quarantine.

November 30, 1918

A conference between the City Council, special flu committee, businesses, and all other interested people is held this morning to discuss the rebound in influenza cases. It is decided to require the wearing of face masks in all public places. Barbers, clerks, and elevator operators are also required to wear masks at all times while working. Public schools are closed indefinitely. Physicians must now report all influenza cases by 10am the following day.

December 2, 1918

The Board of Health declares that streetcars may only carry their seating capacity.

December 4, 1918

The special influenza committee makes wearing of flu masks voluntary instead of compulsory. The Red Cross is selling masks on street, but very few people are wearing them.

December 5, 1918

The special influenza committee recommends closing all places of amusement.

December 6, 1918

Public assembly restrictions are adopted after extensive meetings with businessmen, labor unions, citizens, and the city Board of Health. Churches are to remain open, though Sunday schools are hereby closed.

The School Board announces that school will extend two weeks longer into summer.

The city detention hospital is converted to a temporary influenza hospital.

December 7, 1918

Temple B’nai Jeshurun cancels services for today.

December 8, 1918

Churches voluntarily close in order to help prevent spread of influenza.

December 10, 1918

Fifty beds are ready for use in a newly established temporary hospital in Bird School. The hospital has a Red Cross ambulance, nurses, and physician on duty at all times.

December 17, 1918

All public assembly restrictions are lifted. However, the School Board will keep schools closed until December 30.

December 29, 1918

The School Board announces that high school periods are to be lengthened to 50 minutes, extending the school day to 3:15, but no further attempt will be made to make up lost time. Nurses will be on duty at all schools and children exhibiting any symptoms of flu will be sent home immediately. Bird School has been thoroughly disinfected, and will be ready for pupils tomorrow.