Nurses marching in masks

Right All the Way Through: Dr. Minerva Goodman and the Stockton Mask Debate during the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic

During the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, Stockton, California, adopted a mask ordinance three times, totalling more than seventy days. In late December 1918, Dr. Minerva Goodman, the recently appointed city health officer, lost a debate about ending the second mask ordinance to those advocating a return to normal activities. Just weeks later, as cases rose again, the city council followed Goodman’s advice to restore the ordinance. This time, Mayor Oullahan praised Goodman for being “right all the way through.”[1] As cases decreased, Goodman endorsed the repeal of the third mask ordinance, marking the epidemic’s end in Stockton.

This essay examines masking as a case study of how a health officer faced the contrasting challenges of confronting a deadly epidemic, mobilizing the population, and navigating local politics.[2] At each stage, Goodman had to persuade officials, physicians, and the public to follow strict health measures. Given Goodman’s unusual position as a female health official, this case study also asks how gender shaped the articulation, enforcement, and contestation of medical authority.

Portrait of Dr. Minerva Goodman
Dr. Minerva Goodman (Stockton Daily Evening Record, May 13, 1909)

Minerva Goodman, born in 1876, graduated in 1902 with an MD from the University of Minnesota.[3] In 1904, she opened a practice in Stockton, “where the woman physician was not handicapped by sex-prejudice,” according to a later article.[4] Goodman joined progressive organizations, became secretary of the Red Cross chapter, advocated for women’s suffrage, and served as school medical inspector.[5] During these years, Goodman adopted a daughter, Elizabeth, whom she raised as a single parent.[6]

On November 2, 1918, Goodman received a temporary appointment as Stockton’s city health officer, replacing Dr. Linwood Dozier, who joined the Army Medical Corps.[7] City council members appreciated having “the high professional services of Dr. Goodman’s attainments at their disposal and it was emphasized that a woman health officer is by no means an uncommon thing in public life.” The council predicted that Goodman’s appointment would receive “universal approval.”[8] Under the headline, “Dr. Goodman is Right on the Job,” the Stockton Daily Evening Record explained that “city authorities got in touch with the state board of public health to ascertain whether there was any objection to the appointment of a woman to this vitally important office.” State officials confirmed that “in many other communities women were discharging the duties of such offices with splendid ability.”[9] Declaring that Goodman “won the respect of her associates in a professional way by her skill and devotion to duty,” an editorial combined stereotypes of activist women with appreciation for professional qualifications: “She is an avowed suffragist, but her pleasing womanly personality smoothes away all the rough edges that men were wont to associate with the pronounced worker for equal privileges for women.” Declaring that the “appointment of this energetic little woman cannot fail to give satisfaction,” the newspaper predicted she will be “right on the job.”[10]

Goodman assumed this role at a challenging time. Just one week earlier, Stockton’s city council had imposed an ordinance requiring a face-covering in every public space.[11] After falling ill herself, and missing a few days to “undergo treatment,” Goodman took a leading role in efforts to prevent the spread of disease, including appointing special officers “to enforce the mask ordinance.”[12]

Cartoon depicting Dr. Goodman overseeing a Better Baby eugenics contest
Dr. Goodman coordinating Better Baby Contests. (Stockton Daily Evening Record, May 9, 1917)

On November 15, Goodman announced that “the situation is now improved and that the check of the epidemic is progressing very favorably.”[13] On November 19, Goodman stated: “The situation is quite encouraging and we feel very much pleased,” yet she declined to commit to ending closing orders, which prompted criticism from business owners.[14] On November 23, Goodman declared “that the rigid enforcement of the mask ordinance is still a reality and all are warned against any violation of this precaution.”[15]

On November 27, Mayor Oullahan announced that the mask ordinance would be lifted on Thanksgiving Day. Goodman endorsed this change, but delayed the change until noon, to ensure that masks would be worn at morning church services. As Stockton enthusiastically celebrated the end of masking, the mayor praised Goodman’s “handling of the health situation during the visitation of the disease that spared no community in its world-wide spread.”[16]

Yet just a week later, rumors circulated that new measures were needed in response to increased cases. Over the next several days, as conditions were “assuming a threatening form,” Goodman recommended a second mask mandate.[17] Once again, masks were required in public spaces, but no restrictions were imposed on public gatherings, and people were encouraged “to go ahead with their holiday buying.”[18]

The second decree on masks prompted more forceful opposition. Business leaders argued that masks were “not proving the remedy the situation demands” and “accomplishing nothing.” On December 23, City Council revoked the mask ordinance, under pressure from commercial interests and despite Goodman’s opposition.[19] Unable to sustain mandatory masking, Goodman appealed directly to the public: “People in theaters or wherever there are public gatherings, and persons who are meeting the public, such as clerks, should wear the masks for their own protection.”[20]

As cases once again began to increase in early January, Goodman initially spoke reassuringly: “The situation is not alarming, and I, myself, feel that it is a great deal better.”[21] On January 10, however, the mayor announced that the mask ordinance would be imposed once again: “the time has come for decisive action,” as the “situation is serious and critical.”[22] The mayor offered this ringing endorsement:

Dr. Goodman, our efficient Health Officer, has been consistent and right all the way through. She deserves the co-operation and support of everyone…. Someone must lead, and that is her particular job just now. I know that there is in some quarters a disposition to be critical because the Health Officer is a woman, and this thought goes to impair her usefulness so far as the influence of those critics goes. But let me tell you that there is enough force and spunk and determination in that little woman to challenge the admiration of any man. With a profound sense of my duty, I call upon all the people of Stockton to back her up in her efforts to stamp out the prevailing epidemic.[23]

Reports of frequent mask arrests indicated that this third ordinance was fully enforced.[24] By January 25, however, Goodman offered the “cheerful admission” that the “influenza flare-up appears to be now on the wane.” [25] Three days later, Goodman declared that “the situation is improving all the time,” and predicted the closing orders would soon be lifted.[26] On February 7, the mask ordinance came to an end. Goodman’s decision prompted effusive praise from Mayor Oullahan: “At this time, doctor, the council is highly pleased with your accomplishments during the epidemic.”[27] Two weeks later, Goodman confirmed that influenza “is a thing of the past,” with zero cases in the city.[28]

In April 1919, Dozier was discharged from the army and resumed his position as health officer. The newspaper noted that Goodman submitted her resignation, but made no comment on her role during the epidemic.[29]

Portrait of Dr. Minerva Goodman
Dr. Minerva Goodman (Stockton Daily Evening Record, April 16, 1915)

Goodman’s experience demonstrates the challenges facing officials during a health emergency. Throughout the epidemic, Goodman consistently advocated measures to contain infection: wearing masks, prohibiting gatherings, and enforcing social distancing. During debates on health policies, Goodman provided factual evidence and thoughtful explanations that challenged demands for a rapid return to normalcy. Goodman earned the appreciation of community leaders, as expressed in statements that she was “right all the way through.”

How important was gender during this crisis? Although city leaders and newspaper editors refuted suggestions that Goodman was not qualified to be a city health officer because she was a woman, detailed reports of public meetings did not actually include any statements referencing Goodman’s gender. Debates about whether to require masks reflected different approaches to the pandemic but not, at least on the surface, sexism. As the recent experience of health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, however, assertions of authority in times of crisis often involve gendered forms of expression, identity, and participation. In 2020, The Lily, the Los Angeles Times, and the Public Health Institute reported on women health officials who faced such intense protests, harassment, and even threats that they were forced to resign–just when their expertise and experience were urgently needed in the community. Goodman’s deliberate public statements and careful explanations of policies may have been intentional efforts to circumvent the opposition of those disposed “to be critical because the Health Officer is a woman.”

In the decade that followed, Goodman remained active in the community. In 1924, she became a physician to women students at the University of the Pacific, a post she held for more than thirty years.[30] Goodman died on July 1, 1967, at age 91.[31] An obituary praised her leadership roles in civic organizations but made no mention of her role as city health officer. While this absence was consistent with a broader pattern of failing to acknowledge the most devastating health crisis in American history (until 2020), the emphasis in this obituary was on a life spent in service to the community.[32] Goodman’s life, like her work in the critical months of the 1918-1919 epidemic, illustrated the lasting value of professional expertise and a commitment to advancing community health.

Notes

    1. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 10, 1919, p. 12.
    2. Jessica Brabble, Ariel Ludwig, and E. Thomas Ewing, “The Mask Law will be Rigidly Enforced”: Ordinances, Arrests, and Celebrations during the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic, SHGAPE
    3. University of Minnesota, Thirteenth Annual Commencement, June 5, 1902, n.p.
    4. Stockton Daily Evening Record, May 13, 1909, p. 3.
    5. Stockton Daily Evening Record, October 27, 1905, p. 4.; Stockton Evening Mail, October 31, 1907, p. 12.; Stockton Daily Evening Record, September 1, 1908, p. 8; Evening Mail (Stockton, CA), July 18, 1912, p. 10
    6. The 1920 Census lists Minerva Goodman as head of household, Elizabeth as an adopted daughter, age 4, a Scottish housekeeper Nellie Brebner, and two young women boarders. US Census Records, 1920, available through ancestry.com.
    7. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 2, 1918, p. 8.
    8. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 2, 1918, p. 8.
    9. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 4, 1918, p. 6. Just weeks earlier, Mrs. Ada L. Hart, in Susanville, was reported as the “the only woman City Health Officer in California.” Sacramento Bee, October 15, 1918, p. 9.
    10. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 5, 1918, p. 2
    11. Stockton Daily Evening Record, October 25, 1918, p. 14. See discussion of Stockton’s mask ordinances in 1918 in Jessica Brabble, Ariel Ludwig, and E. Thomas Ewing, “‘The Mask Law will be Rigidly Enforced’: Ordinances, Arrests, and Celebrations during the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic,” Society for Historians of of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Blog, August 11, 2020.
    12. =Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 7, 1918, p. 12; Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 15, 1918, p. 7.
    13. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 15, 1918, p. 7.
    14. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 19, 1918, p. 8
    15. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 23, 1918, p. 12.
    16. Stockton Daily Evening Record, November 28, 1918, p. 6.
    17. Stockton Daily Evening Record, December 2, 1918, p. 12; December 5, 1918, p. 14.;
    18. Stockton Daily Evening Record, December 9, 1918, p. 1.
    19. Stockton Daily Evening Record, December 23, 1918, p. 3.
    20. Stockton Daily Evening Record, December 23, 1918, p. 3.
    21. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 6, 1919, p. 10.
    22. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 10, 1919, p. 12.
    23. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 10, 1919, p. 12.
    24. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 25, 1919, p. 9.
    25. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 25, 1919, p. 12.
    26. Stockton Daily Evening Record, January 28, 1919, p. 3.
    27. Stockton Daily Evening Record, February 7, 1919, p. 12.
    28. Stockton Daily Evening Record, February 18, 1919, p. 12.
    29. Stockton Daily Evening Record, April 29, 1919, p. 6
    30. Index to Minerva Goodman Collection, University Library, University of the Pacific. Accessed Feb 18, 2021.
    31. University of Minnesota Medical Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 2, October 1967, p. 61.
    32. Sacramento Bee, July 4, 1967, p. 23.

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