By Kodee Summers
The 1918 Flu Pandemic, which started in spring 1918 and lasted till early summer 1919, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 20 to 50 million victims. Also known as the Spanish Flu, it was first observed in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia. Influenza is a virus that attacks the respiratory system, similar to COVID-19. Citizens of the world during the Spanish flu were ordered to wear masks as we are asked to do today. Similarities continue–in 1918, the New York City health commissioner tried to slow the transmission of the flu by ordering ordinary businesses to open and close on staggered shifts to avoid overcrowding on the subways.
How did the Spanish flu come by its name? Spain was hit hard by the disease and was not subject to wartime news blackouts that affected other European countries, so news flowed to the rest of the world about their troubles. Spain was a neutral country during World War I which was going on at the time of the pandemic. As we face another pandemic, we often want to look back in time to see how events were handled to see if they could provide solutions. For example, schools now are closed for the school year due to COVID-19. When it became a pandemic, lessons were learned from the Spanish flu and schools closed that had only been affected by 1 or 2 people.
Anecdotal stories on college campuses in the United States during the 1918 flu pandemic can help us connect to the lessons learned.
Our first story lands us in Rock Island, Illinois. A young man, Walter Grantz, attended Augustana College in the fall of 1918. Walter’s college career and his military service were unfulfilled when he died on October 7th, 1918. He was sickened while home in Michigan for the funeral of his brother and died before returning to Augustana. He was the only student from Augustana to die from the flu. Traditional grieving for his brother led to his own life being cut short. October was the deadliest month in the United States for the 1918 Flu Pandemic.
On October 8th, 1918, reality struck at the University of Kansas, where officials ordered a temporary shutdown of the school. What they thought was to be only a week turned into a month. Almost 1,000 members of the university community fell ill with the flu. We wonder what could have happened had our universities not shut their campus down during COVID-19.
Elon University, located in Elon, North Carolina, did their best when facing the pandemic in 1918. They converted the gym building into a sick ward and University President William A. Harper and his wife opened up their home to the sick. Those not ill cared for the sick, working for 2 hours then resting for 4 hours. Unfortunately, three students passed away from the sickness: Modesto Lopez, an international student from Cuba, Clarence E. Sechrist, and Annie Floyd.
Here in Cañon City, all schools closed to combat the flu. Homework was mailed out to the students instead. The only students that returned to school were the seniors, to guarantee they would graduate on time. They were all required to wear masks upon their return. The Spanish Flu is a lesson to all of us, as we are living in a similar pandemic. The history we look back on helps us be prepared for future events.