The “Spanish” Flu On Campus

This post is the fourth in a series on the effects of the “Spanish Flu” pandemic in 1918 and 1919. In light of the recent situation with COVID-19, SCARC archivists Anna Dvorak and Larry Landis explore how past epidemics and pandemics have impacted the Oregon State and Corvallis communities.

Corvallis citizens saying goodbye to OAC cadets, circa 1918, Oregon State University Military Photographs Collection, 1875-1975 (P 002)

As Oregon Agricultural College students began to arrive back on campus for the start of classes in October 1918, the “Spanish” Flu had not yet arrived in Corvallis, but measures were in place to take care of sick students and to help prevent the spread of the virus.  The presence of the Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC) on OAC’s campus greatly affected the efficiency of caring for sick students, which in turn encouraged Corvallis to follow suit.

SATC field maneuvers and mock battle west of Corvallis, Harriet’s Photograph Collection, 1868-1996 (P HC)

Tracking of cases on the college campus started Tuesday October 1, 1918, the day classes commenced.  The “Report of the College Health Service” in the College Biennial Report of the Board of Regents, 1916-1918, gives an excellent narrative of how the epidemic was controlled on campus, especially among the SATC cadets.  1918 was the first year that treatment was split based on gender.  Male students who fell ill were treated by a medical officer and dentist attached to the SATC, and 8 local physicians.  With the campus Medical Adviser, Dr. Wendell J. Phillips, away on medical leave, female students on the other hand, were treated by the resident nurse, Amy Cyrus, who saw patients in her offices on the ground floor of the Home Economics building and at students’ residences.  From October through December, she attended to 159 cases of “Spanish influenza” and there were no female deaths reported on campus.  The “Report” attributed her success to her efforts to prevent the disease in the first place by teaching students to diagnose the symptoms of the flu, and to protect themselves from it.  As a whole, OAC suffered a total of 785 cases, with only 4 deaths at the end of 1918.

The flu, naturally, impacted student life as well.  Student activities were cancelled or suspended and interactions were limited.  However, despite the restrictions, the football game on October 12, 1918 was allowed to proceed as scheduled.  But others later in the season were played without an audience.  And come spring, the impact of the flu on the basketball season was a major concern.  In the 1920 Beaver yearbook, which covers the 1918-1919 academic year, the Vigilance Committee commended the Freshman class for having shown “a fine spirit of willingness and helpfulness toward the institution and its customs” despite having lost three months of college life due to the cancelation of activities in the Fall 1918 term.

On October 11, the Gazette-Times announced that there were no cases of influenza in Corvallis and OAC students were being given medical attention at the first signs of colds or grippe in order to monitor for development of influenza.  However, the SATC reports paint a different story.  During the second week of classes, the cases numbered close to 200 and an appeal was made for expert medical assistance.  

The third floor of Waldo had been converted into a thirty bed infirmary for male students, similar measures had been taken to isolate sick female students as well.  Courses in hygiene and pharmacy adapted and added lectures in the management of colds and grippe, and also the nature of the Spanish flu.  Sororities and fraternities were closed to visitors, and house mothers received training and supplies to care for their female students.  Any student with a cold was instructed to stay home and not attend any classes.  

In early November, US Major Cross of the medical corps attributed the relative success of the Corvallis epidemic to “above average intelligence” and a successful newspaper education campaign.  At that time, there were only 2 deaths out of 400 cases in Corvallis and 4 deaths out of 600 on campus.  This success was emphasized by the satisfaction of a state official who visited campus after complaints that the school was still operating.  However, when he inspected campus and looked at the statistics, he allowed the college to stay in operation.  In his final report about his visit at OAC, Major Cross reported “that the epidemic had been more successfully controlled at the Oregon Agricultural College than at any center of military training in the country where an equal number of men were concerned.”

By early January 1919, Corvallis reported a decrease in the number of cases reported, despite rumors that there were new cases and the town would have to be quarantined.  On January 9, it was reported that no deaths had occurred since December 26.  But there seems to have been a spike in mid- to late-January 1919 that made it necessary to use Shepard Hall on OAC campus as a hospital, which opened on January 11, 1919.  This was due to a shortage of nurses and the difficulty of isolating students in dorms and other living communities such as sororities or fraternities.  Although beds were provided, students had to provide their own linens in the hospital.  By the 13th, 19 more cases were reported, bringing the total to 51, but officials maintained that there was no need to worry about the increase.

February continued to see impacts to life on campus.  Although the demobilization of troops was a bright spot, a second quarantine prevented a return to normal and an impact on the college basketball season.  Later in the month, there was also no indoor memorial service for college librarian Ida Kidder, who passed on February 28, 1919, because of the influenza epidemic.  Instead, a memorial service was held in the open space in front of the library and she laid in state in the main corridor of the library on March 2.

As the epidemic subsided, thoughts turned to the future.  Due to the need for nurses demonstrated by the pandemic, OAC began offering home nursing classes spring term 1919.

This post was contributed by Anna Dvorak. Anna is a Processing Archivist and Historian of Science, and serves as SCARC’s social media coordinator.

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