1918 Flu Epidemic in Ames: Hiding the Epidemic

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Ames series is a look back at the fall of 1918 and spring of 1919 to see how Iowa State and Ames handled the worldwide flu pandemic on the local level.

Beginning in October, the number of people admitted to the college hospital increased every day. However, reading the Ames newspapers you wouldn’t know it or have a good grasp on the flu epidemic’s extent. City and college officials were often quiet on the Spanish flu’s presence. Instead, they gave somewhat vague answers, spouting how great hospital conditions were and that everyone was soon going to be fine.

What was actually happening in Ames was happening across the world. October 1918 was the deadliest month in American history. In 31 days, an estimated 195,000 people died. From the fall of 1918 to spring of 1919, 550,000 Americans died and an estimated (and certainly debatable) 30 million across the world by the time the influenza pandemic ended.

This second part covers the early days of the epidemic in Ames.

A Note on Ames Newspapers: When planning this series, I intended to rely solely on the Daily’s archive because that’s the reason for this blog, but at only twice a week, the Daily (then called the Student) only covered some of the happenings since some items were quite dated days later, especially when they were critical for living through the pandemic. On the other side of Ames, there was the 6-day-a-week Ames Evening Times and the thrice-weekly Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. The Times carried several wire stories in every issue about the fighting during World War I and championed the Allies against the Germans and other Central Powers. In every issue, the Germans were retreating somewhere (and were usually referred to as “Huns,” not Germans). The Times ran local stories, but frequently, whatever the city and military officials said was taken at face value. This was a time when everything the leaders did was for the good of the war effort, so nothing was ever questioned. The Tribune had a stronger local focus but unlike the Times, its stories often included some editorialized/opinion content, occasionally talking about patriotism and the well-deserved trust the local and national leaders deserved. World War I was not a era to question authority. The newspapers certainly didn’t.

  • October 2: Quarantine issued for military students (29 cases)
  • October 3: 12,000 are reported sick at Camp Dodge in Des Moines (72 cases)
  • October 4: Theaters, public dances, and churches closed; female students quarantined (144 cases)
  • October 5: Local doctors dedicate themselves full-time to flu epidemic (264 cases)
  • October 6: During the night, hundreds crowd Main Street to celebrate a rumor of peace talks (359 cases)
  • October 7: Local health board decides to keep public schools open; college authorities downplay the flu’s threat despite more than 1 in 10 students sick (448 cases)
  • October 8: First student death; men and women to be separated in classrooms (495 cases, 1 dead)
  • October 9: Public schools closed; campus hospital facilities expand to Enrollment Services Center and Beardshear House (551 cases, 1 dead)
Iowa State Student, 4 October 1918

OCTOBER 2 (Wednesday)

Hospital admittance: 4 (29 total)[1]

In between the first issue of the fall semester and this second issue (the Daily published twice a week: Tuesday and Friday), the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) students had a quarantine placed on them beginning Wednesday morning[2]. However, local newspapers reported the quarantine was only a precaution[3]. The Student reported that none of the flu cases were Spanish flu, rather they were English flu — or the common flu — and people shouldn’t worry. Everything was fine. The healthy SATC members would get shots to prevent the sickness from spreading, too.

The rules of the SATC quarantine as published in the Iowa State Student[2]:

  • All members of SATC are confined to limits of post until further notice.
  • Members of the SATC shall not be allowed to attend any formal functions or any gathering, public or social.
  • There is to be no communication from barracks to barracks.
  • There will be no congregating in any individual room in any barracks.
  • All blankets and bed clothing will be aired daily.
  • That all unnecessary clothing and personal effects be disposed of or sent home.
  • All men be conducted from barracks to classes and from classes to barracks.
  • Under no circumstances will a person without pass be allowed on barrack grounds or in barracks.

The Student put down rumors that the SATC quarantine was limited to three weeks. It was considered indefinite, only to be lifted when the scare had passed[2].

The Ames Evening Times quoted commandant Gen. James R. Lincoln as saying “the quarantine does not mean that there is an epidemic of any kind prevalent at the camp” and unless the situation becomes serious, he had no authority over what happens to all of West Ames. At the time, rumors of quarantining the west side of Ames was an immediate probability. It appears Lincoln didn’t say much else on the seriousness of the sick students because the Times then states, “it has been learned from an authoritative source that a call has been made on the local Red Cross, asking them to be ready in case of emergency”[3].

OCTOBER 3 (Thursday)

Hospital admittance: 43 (72 total)

There were 43 new flu cases on campus[1] and at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, it was reported to have 1,200 in the hospital with the flu, of which 558 were proven to be Spanish flu.[4]

OCTOBER 4 (Friday)

Hospital admittance: 72 (144 total)

In the morning, Gen. Lincoln and Ames mayor E.H. Graves decided to end public gatherings and expand quarantine efforts on campus[5].

Though this was the day of the Student’s issue, the big announcement was later in the day and dominated the Times, the evening newspaper. The mayor said all public entertainment venues and churches in Ames were closed effect at noon until further notice. Here is the mayor’s proclamation:

In view of the fact that there is a contagious disease prevalent in Ames and vicinity known as Spanish influenza, and in view of the further fact that at the present time it is the patriotic duty of the citizens of Ames, Iowa, to use every precautionary measure to prevent the spread of this disease.

It is here ordered by the Local Board of Health that all theatres, picture shows, public dances and all other public places of amusement and all churches be closed from and after this date in the City of Ames, Story county, Iowa, until further order of this board.

Dated at Ames, Story County, Iowa this 4th day of October, 1918, at 12 o’clock noon.

E. H. Graves, mayor

The proclamation is the first acknowledgement that the Spanish flu was present in the Ames area, though it didn’t come from anyone at the college. The Times reported there were no flu cases at Mary Greeley Hospital, so its prevalence in the city wasn’t verified. (At least reporters tried to check.)[5]

In the Times, Lincoln said around 40 students were in the hospital, but he didn’t confirm or deny the Spanish flu was on campus. At this point, more than 140 students were sick by the day’s end[1]. To ensure no one questioned the latest limitations, Lincoln said the new quarantine was about patriotism — “should the epidemic appear,” the college will be ready. A Tribune story goes even further to make sure readers don’t question the quarantine, calling it a war measure “pure and simple. There is nothing alarming in the proclamation,” and it’s only preventative. “It should be understood that Ames is under dictation of the military authorities, if they care to enforce any action,” it wrote.

“War Measure Was Adopted,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 4 October 1918.

Master gunner Harold Pammel, who I believe was one of the first to contract the flu, was released from the college hospital[7]. Meanwhile, Red Cross nurses arrived at the campus to serve but were turned away because the men at the camp were servicing as nurses’ assistants[5].

Oddly, unmentioned in this and future issues of the Student was a quarantine for all female students, likely designed by Lincoln and issued by acting president Edgar Stanton. The women were no longer allowed near the military barracks, their social events were cancelled, and they were banned from going downtown unless accompanied by a chaperone[5].

In the Student, Dean R. E. Buchanan didn’t downplay the threat of the Spanish flu. His tips for protecting yourself[8]:

  • Don’t use any drinking fountain on campus
  • Don’t use cups for drinking that were not scalded
  • Don’t touch desks, doorknobs, or woodwork unless necessary
  • Avoid crowds, drafts, and limits contact with others as much as possible

The newspaper also reported that the first two football games were cancelled because of the SATC quarantine[9]. However, the government had indirectly ordered football games cancelled for the month of October. The only time a team can be away from its institution is Saturday afternoon, but Iowa State officials were hopeful to get a waive since there was a set schedule for play in the Missouri Valley conference[10].

OCTOBER 5 (Saturday)

Hospital admittance: 120 (264 total)

According to the College Hospital record book, October 5 had the most new admissions of the pandemic. The number of people who had been release during the past five days was incredibly small.

Citing “unofficial sources,” the Times reported that Ames’ Drs. Budge, Tilden, and Rice were devoting themselves to influenza work full-time while Drs. Aplin and Templeton did part-time. It also wrote that the current epidemic was no worse than the Russian flu epidemic in 1889-90. However, it does complain about the cleanliness of the streetcar that carries residents between downtown and the college[11]. It had a long history of being overcrowded and dirty — an excellent incubator for the flu.

OCTOBER 6 (Sunday)

Hospital admittance: 95 (359 total)

Decades before students rioted during VEISHEA, Ames residents crowded Main Street in the middle of the night to celebrate the rumor that the Germans wanted to have peace talks with the Allies.

At about 1:30 a.m., a fire truck paraded down the Main Street, church bells rang, motorcycles were heard, tin horns sounded, etc. Across town, even the Campanile was reported to have joined the fray. Nevertheless, all public gatherings were forbidden at the time, and the celebration, which included many speakers, including pastors, lasted until about 5 a.m. For a city that was trying to prevent a public health crisis, this didn’t help[12, 13, 14]. (For some Iowa context, on Saturday, the flu was first noted in the civilian population in Des Moines, and 250 people were sick at the University of Iowa.) The Times even published a special Sunday edition that addressed some of the rumors and specifically stated that the war was not over.

In a brief statement with minuscule context, the Times stated that sorority houses and women’s dormitories were quarantined. None of the residents were allowed to leave[15].

OCTOBER 7 (Monday)

Hospital admittance: 89 (448 total)

In the morning, the Ames Board of Health, which was chaired by the mayor E. H. Graves, decided not to close the public schools because flu epidemic was “not serious enough”[16]. Unlike Iowa State, which was only in its second week of classes, the public schools had been in session for a month — the first day was September 3[17]. Graves was waiting for the flu to be a serious threat to students, though attendance was down as more and more parents opted to not send children to school[18]. The nearby schools of Story City and Gilbert both closed, citing the flu scare and recommendations from state authorities[19, 20].

With several quarantines at Iowa State and calls from the community to close the public schools, the Tribune ran a piece acknowledging the presence of the Spanish flu, but said the virus was no real threat. “There is no denial that Spanish influenza prevails at the camp, but the cases are so few and they are of such mild form that there is not considered the necessity of resorting to other means nor calling for other assistance than that which the officials already have at their command.” The rumors of death on campus were also supposedly false. “There have been no deaths and there is no person who is so sick that death is even expected. In fact the disease was taken in hand by medical men at the time when it first made its appearance and by this means there was the stamping out of any spreading to any great extent.”[21]

Roughly ~14% of the student body was or had been sick by this time[1]. (Adjust that to today’s enrollment numbers, that’d be 4,900 of 35,000 students.) Some cases would soon be turning into pneumonia, and the first death was only a day away.

Iowa State Student, 8 Oct 1918

OCTOBER 8 (Tuesday)

Hospital admittance: 47 (495 total)
Deaths: 1 (1 total)
#1: Pvt. Clarence Nelson, Jewell

At about 9 p.m., Pvt. Clarence Nelson, of Jewell, became the first ISU student to die in Ames during the flu pandemic[22].

The then-brand new college hospital (the Student Services building) was soon overwhelmed as the pandemic set in. Hospital facilities now included State Gym and the Collegiate Presbyterian Church basement. The Times did a little digging into just how may sick were in Ames. Unofficial sources said the flu was in the grade schools, and armed guards were posted at all entrances of the college campus, which surely made the situation appear worse than what officials were saying. Yet the mayor, who is chairman of the health board, said “I don’t know” to questions about how many cases there were in Ames. “It is certain there are more cases here than the authorities intend for the public to know,” the Times wrote. At the college, it was reported that 100 patients were released and 60 new ones were admitted for an estimated 300 total. In Ames, there were an estimated 100 patients in a city of more than 5,000[16].

When the Student went to press, there were no reported deaths. Lincoln said all cases were mild, and the conditions at the college were better than any other camp[23]. The good conditions and quarantine were the reasons Lincoln said he’d wait to send 90 students to an officers’ training camp[24]. (The students aren’t contagious and staying on campus was for their benefit.) Vaccines that were supposed to be given a few days ago were not given due to fear they might make it worse in case a student already had the flu[23].

At some point during the day, Iowa State’s Board of Deans voted to segregate the men from the women[25]. This decision, which wasn’t reported in the city newspapers, likely helped prevent many women from getting the flu because men were already more likely to be infected given the army camp and separating them from women put more space between them and the virus. While the decision was made Oct. 8, word of it didn’t reach some faculty until Oct. 14, and there were departments that ignored it because of the lack of instructors and class space. Classes with one or two women were allowed to remain intact as long as the women were seated at least five feet from the men — social distancing in 1918.

Memo to segregate men and women in classes, 1918 (via ISU Special Collections.)

At this point, newspapers had to know the situation was serious — surely the Student did — but little was reported. Whether the information was censored by officials or newspaper weren’t reporting everything remains a mystery, but it wasn’t uncommon for the time. There was a fear that such bad news about a deadly flu pandemic might get back to the Germans, so downplaying details was patriotic. However, at the same time, Germany were battling a deadly second wave of the flu.

Around Iowa: the University of Iowa also had its first student death from the flu and cancelled classes for military students (the number of flu cases were about the same as Iowa State)… Des Moines’ frontline physicians, including those at Camp Dodge, met with Iowa Board of Health

OCTOBER 9 (Wednesday)

Hospital admittance: 56 (551 total)
Deaths: 0 (1 total)

At some point during the night or early morning — the Times and Tribune don’t agree — the Ames board of health decided to close the public schools[26, 27]. Earlier stories hinted that board members wanted to close the schools, but they didn’t want to go against the mayor so they supported his decision. However, the decision to close the schools wasn’t necessarily mayor Graves’. A telegram from U.S. Department of Health advised schools to be closed across the country and the Iowa Board of Health also recommended closing public schools[26].

The mayor’s statement:

Pursuant to instructions received from the State Board of Health, the proclamation closing Moving Picture Shows, Theatres, Churches, Public Dances and other places of amusement is herewith made to cover the Public Schools of the City of Ames. Elsewhere find instructions from the State Board of Health

Mayor E. H. Graves’ statement on closing of public schools, 9 Oct 1918.

The flu also took center stage on a national level. The U.S. Health Department wanted to know all cases and created a system where local physicians reported cases to the town mayor, who reported to the State Board of Health, who reported it to the U.S. Health Department[26].

At Ames schools, there were either 6 teachers (Times) or 5 teachers (Tribune) sick with the flu. The Times said many students are thought to be sick while the Tribune said the opposite. Nevertheless, having the kids at home didn’t mean they were free to play. Children wondering the street would have “consequences”[26, 27].

Despite the death on campus yesterday, the Times ran a story with a subhead “Situation here is not alarming; physicians declared to be master of situation—no cause for alarm”[22] The college hospital facilities are now reported to include the Enrollment Services Center and Beardshear House (also known as Lincoln Cottage and East Hall Annex depending on the era; it was razed in 1973). College officials were unavailable to comment on the number of sick, but “knowledgeable sources” said 500[26], which is somewhat accurate when compared to the hospital logs[1]. The Tribune continued to repeat the story that college conditions were great, the men were happy, and everyone was getting better[27].

Around Iowa: Des Moines City Council had an emergency meeting to discuss closings and quarantine… a second student died at University of Iowa… Cedar Rapids officials state only about 200 are sick and it isn’t being under-reported.

The following day, all of West Ames went under a quarantine, and for the next 10 days, there would be at least one student death per day.

State Gym transformed into a temporary hospital during the 1918 flu epidemic. (ISU Special Collections, Box 1123)


  1. Iowa State College Hospital record book for the Motor Corps and SATC. Oct 1918.
  2. “Influenza has not broken out here say hospital authorities,” Iowa State Student. 4 Oct 1918.
  3. “Customary two weeks quarantine of troops keeps boys in barracks,” Ames Evening Times. 2 Oct 1918.
  4. “1200 cases of ‘flu’ reported at Dodge,” Ames Evening Times. 3 Oct 1918.
  5. “Because of Spanish influenza, theatres and churches closed,” Ames Evening Times. 4 Oct 1918.
  6. “War measure was adopted,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 4 Oct 1918.
  7. “Personals,” Ames Evening Times. 8 Oct 1918.
  8. “Influenza is serious says Dean Buchanan,” Iowa State Student. 4 Oct 1918.
  9. “Missouri Valley freshmen can play varsity ball,” Iowa State Student. 4 Oct 1918.
  10. “War Department’s action wipes out college schedules,” Ames Evening Times. 5 Oct 1918.
  11. “City physicians are lending aid to stamp out influenza here,” Ames Evening Times. 5 Oct 1918.
  12. “General Lincoln controls situation during celebration,” Iowa State Student. 7 Oct 1918.
  13. “Peace demonstration rouses wrath of Ames people; object to call,” Ames Evening Times. 7 Oct 1918.
  14. “Rumors rampant cause Ames to stage jollification,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 7 Oct 1918.
  15. “Personals,” Ames Evening Times. 8 Oct 1918
  16. “Will not close public schools until disease makes its appearance,” Ames Evening Times. 8 Oct 1918.
  17. Untitled page one story, Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 4 Sep 1918.
  18. “Closing schools was discussed,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 9 Oct 1918.
  19. “Order Gilbert Schools Closed,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 9 Oct 1918.
  20. “Schools closed in Story City,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 7 Oct 1918.
  21. “Soldiers are detained at the training camp,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 7 Oct 1918.
  22. “First death from Spanish influenza reported at college,” Ames Evening Times. 9 Oct 1918.
  23. “Influenza gives no cause for alarm says Gen. Lincoln,” Iowa State Student. 8 Oct 1918.
  24. “Quarantine postpones departure of men,” Iowa State Student. 8 Oct 1918.
  25. “Men and women put in separate classes,” Iowa State Student. 15 Oct 1918.
  26. “Special meeting of the board of health closes schools,” Ames Evening Times. 9 Oct 1918.
  27. “Ames schools closed on government order,” Ames Tri-Weekly Tribune. 9 Oct 1918.

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