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The Wittenmyer Diet

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Rock Islanders know Annie Wittenmyer as the young woman who convinced Governor Samuel Kirkwood of Iowa to set up orphans' homes after the Civil War to take care of the children of soldiers who had died. She came to Davenport to run one of them; it still bears her name.But hospitalized and wounded soldiers who survived the Civil War had reason to thank Annie Wittenmyer, too. Annie was a nurse from Keokuk. When the war began, she organized the Keokuk Soldier’s Aid Society to provide food, clothing, bandages, and money for men at the front. Then she herself went off to serve in various army hospitals. One day, in the military hospital in Sedalia, Missouri, she came across her 16-year-old brother. It was breakfast time. An attendant brought a dingy wooden tray with standard hospital fare: a tin cup full of strong coffee, and a platter on which a piece of fried fat bacon was swimming in its own grease, along with a soggy slice of bread.

Annie's sick brother could not eat the food, and there was no other choice. As far as Annie was concerned, it was difficult to see how anything except poison could have been more harmful to sick men than the food they were given to eat. Boys like her brother needed a good diet more than medicine.

Annie Wittenmyer was finally able to convince the government to set up a special diet kitchen where two women prepared meals for each patient according to doctor's orders. This was something brand new in military history, but the death rate dropped dramatically. The new diet kitchens made Annie Wittenmyer nationally famous. She supervised the whole operation in order to keep grafting quartermasters from substituting cheap spoiled food. By the end of the war, more than a hundred special diet kitchens had been installed in various hospitals, and the idea of special hospital diets had become accepted.

Annie Wittenmyer's efforts made her one of the little-known heroines of the Civil War. Don’t you wish she had lived long enough to take on airline meals?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.