Epidemics at Iowa State
Typhoid Fever, 1877
The first class entered Iowa State in 1869. In the beginning, almost everyone lived, worked, and studied in Old Main. This was the original classroom building, located where Beardshear Hall sits today. It contained classrooms, kitchen, dining room, laundry, the library, the chapel, rooms for faculty, and dormitory space for 220 students.
Over time, David Fairchild, the college physician, noticed that the incidence of sickness was increasing. In 1877, twenty-five cases of typhoid were recorded in the student body. Four of these students died. It was decided to investigate the sanitary state of the college building. Dr. Fairchild and other staff members began with the cellar. Here is his description of what they found:
"We found the cellar in a damp and close condition, the sewer and water pipes were leaking badly, and the ground was thoroughly saturated. In the neighborhood of the sewer pipes the emanations were almost intolerable. The cold air ducts which formerly supplied the furnaces had been closed, hence the only ventilation from the cellar was into the rooms above, which was accomplished in this manner: The original idea of ventilating the rooms was by a means of an air duct passing from the top of the building, where it was tightly closed down into the cellar. Each room, by means of a register, communicated with one of these ducts. It was now ascertained that there was a strong current of air into each room, loaded with all the impurities from the cellar."
The sewer itself was in terrible condition. The Sanitary Committee - Dr. Fairchild, Professor Joseph Budd from Horticulture and Professor F.E. Beal from Civil Engineering - went downtown and borrowed $1200 from the Union National Bank on their own signatures to build a new sewer. (They hoped the Legislature would eventually reimburse them, which it did). Here is Dr. Fairchild again:
"During the winter vacation, the necessary money having been obtained the old sewer was disconnected from the College building, and a new sewer constructed. An examination of the old sewer revealed a most frightful state of affairs. It was nearly full of almost solid sewage, the accumulation of seven years of two hundred persons."
The new sewer was designed by Professor Beal to modern specifications with ample venting and filtration. In the following two years, student health improved considerably, but there were still many cases of fever and tonsillitis. Oddly, 49% of these cases occurred in just a few rooms running up through all the stories of the building over one of the restrooms. After further excavation, it was found that one last pipe still connected the old sewer to the ventilation system. Once this was removed, the intermittent fevers and tonsillitis disappeared.
These events pointed out the need for a hospital for sick students, and the Sanitary building was completed in 1885. Shared with the Veterinary Department, the building provided eight sick rooms on the second floor.
Typhoid Epidemic, 1900
Another typhoid epidemic took place in the fall of 1900. There were 65 cases - 23 of these students went home to be cared for - three of these students died. Forty-two students were cared for here at Iowa State - 33 men and 9 women. Two of these students died as well.
By now, the entire Sanitary Building was in use as a hospital. Unfortunately, in the Fall of 1900, it was closed for major remodeling. The first typhoid cases were diagnosed on October 8. The sick were first housed in a small tent, but so many cases developed that most students were left to the care of their roommates until a large recitation room in the Agricultural Building (now Catt Hall) was made available on October 15. Cases continued to turn up until November 3. Before antibiotics, typhoid took six weeks to run its course, making for a long and difficult fall semester for the medical staff.
As in the 1877 epidemic, attention turned to the sewage system, but it was found to be in good condition. So was the campus water supply. Next to come under scrutiny was the Margaret Hall dining room. Nearly everyone on campus ate there, but nothing was found until they looked at the milk supply.
The college was contracting with two local farmers, Mr. Skelton and Mr. Pritchard, to supply milk for the dining room. When Mr. Skelton's supply failed, he arranged with a Mr. Briley to provide milk, which he did from September 3 to October 17. Once College Physician W.E. Harriman heard the name Briley, he remembered that a colleague had mentioned a severe case of typhoid in the Briley family the previous summer. All milk from the Briley farm was then rejected and the wells from all three farms providing milk were tested. Briley had two wells - one was found to contain over 180,000 germs to the cubic centimeter. Mr. Briley admitted that he did not sterilize the milk cans, so any bacteria present in the wash water was free to develop in the cans of milk, which was served raw in the dining room each evening. The dining room contained 61 tables seating eight persons apiece. Each table received three pounds of milk, except for the football training tables, which received six pounds. (Of the 16 young men at the training tables, 13 contracted typhoid).
From November 20, 1900 onwards, all milk served on campus was either pasteurized or sterilized.
Spanish Influenza Epidemic, 1918
The world-wide Spanish influenza epidemic struck Iowa State in the Fall of 1918. The nation was at war, and Iowa State was providing technical training to large numbers of military men through the Student Army Training Corps, or SATC. As the program got started, so did the flu. Here is a description of the outbreak from Grace Crowston, who was the superintendant of the then new College Hospital (now the Student Services Building):
"We moved in the month of April. At that time two companies of government men were stationed at the college, Companies A and B. Company B arrived in Ames during a snow storm. The result was several flu cases followed by pneumonia, and we lost two or three. After moving into the new hospital, we added several nurses to our force, also a part time stenographer. Several student boys helped in the drug room and with the trays...
At this time the government installed a medical unit, comprised of Dr. John Hickman (Capt.) as head, Dr. Kelly from Denver, Colorado and Dr. Lee from Cleveland, Ohio, and several new men in the office to do paper work, also 12 men picked as medical corps. They assisted in caring for patients, driving ambulances, etc.
In October 1918 the flu epidemic came and we used the hospital as a base for pneumonias. All available frat houses, also the men's gym were used for overflow of convalescent patients. Also one of the dorms was used for girls, East Hall, I think. (This is now Freeman Hall). We had 250 men ill in the gym at one time.
We established a medical personnel of the city doctors from Ames, all Red Cross nurses we could get from Fort Des Moines or any place. Dr. Tilden cared for only college students and S.A.T.C. boys. We had at one time 1250 ill, and we lost 33 students and government men with pneumonia. The campus was in quarantine and soldiers were stationed at all exits…government passes were needed to get in and out of the campus."
Two women students and 51 SATC men died as a result of the 1918 flu epidemic. All the men's names are included in the World War I list in Gold Star Hall at the Memorial Union.
Becky S. Jordan
October 8, 2009
The image was taken in the State Gym during the
influenza epidemic of 1918. After the College Hospital exceeded capacity,
patients were housed in the State Gym. Fifty-three people at Iowa State died
during the epidemic.