One hundred years ago — in the autumn of 1918 — the Alma College campus was quarantined following the arrival of the deadly, contagious respiratory infection dubbed the “Spanish influenza.”
Small towns like Alma were not immune from the effects of the global pandemic, considered the most severe in recent history. The number of flu-related deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
First-year students at Alma College are digging into the archives to tell the stories of how the people of Alma experienced the 1918 flu epidemic. The seminar course, “The 1918 Flu in Michigan,” includes the daily live-tweeting of headlines from historical newspapers about the spread of the flu as it came to Detroit, Bay City, Saginaw and eventually Alma.
In addition, the class has posted a Facebook page — facebook.com/MichFlu1918 — that encourages people with family memories or artifacts to share them.
“The Alma Record, the local newspaper publishing in 1918, is an absolute goldmine of local history,” says Kristin Olbertson, associate professor of history. “The St. Louis, Mich., newspaper from that era also has been digitized. We have lots of material, including 25 to 30 articles from The Almanian, the Alma College student newspaper.”
The historical headlines posted in the @MichFlu_1918 Twitter account reveal insights that cover not only historical perspectives but issues related to public health and government censorship.
“I’m looking forward to having first-year students experience the excitement of getting to work with these newspapers,” says Olbertson. “Often students have to wait until they’re in an upper level course or even graduate school before they have a chance to work extensively in the archives, and these students will be doing so in their first week of class.
“My hope is that they leave the class feeling empowered to conduct their own research into family or local history,” she says.
The Spanish influenza spread in the final year of World War I. At Alma College in 1918, young men participated in military training, and the Hood Museum — the Hood Building still stands as an office building on Alma’s campus — was transformed into barracks to house the recruits.
Recent posts share headlines from August 1918 that highlight the war effort from a local perspective:
- “With so many drafted or enlisted, the Alma College’s men’s athletic coach (yes, only one) had virtually no returning players in the fall of 1918. They had no idea there would be an even more dangerous opponent than Albion College.”
- “Presidents of Michigan colleges urged their male students to stay in school, reported the Alma Record on Aug. 22, 1918. Their college training would be valuable as officers during and after the war, according to the U.S. government.”
- “100 years ago, Alma…prepared to open its public schools. But this small rural community was also deeply involved in international affairs; canning clubs preserved produce for the war effort, and 17 men were called to report to Camp Custer.”